Before each season, Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference North coaches get together and craft a preseason poll of the top teams in the conference. Some seasons, there’s debate. This season, it wasn’t close. With all its starters returning, Hampden Academy is the clear favorite in the region

Gardiner and Nokomis rounded out the top three in the preseason poll. Messalonskee — last season’s conference champion — was sixth in the poll, but the Eagles concede they’ll wear a target as defending champs.

“Every team we face is going to have us circled on the calendar,” Messalonskee coach Peter McLaughlin said.

Messalonskee graduated a talented senior class, including all-conference players Nate Violette and James Kouletsis. Two starters return, point guard Chase Warren and forward Cole Wood. Making up the 35 points and 16 rebounds Violette and Kouletsis contributed game in, game out won’t be easy, and won’t come from just a couple players.

“We’ll be more balanced, but if somebody’s feeling it, they could go for 20 or more in a night,” McLaughlin said.

With an abundance of talent and experience back, Gardiner was a sure bet for a high spot in the poll. Isaiah Magee is back as the team’s dynamic distributor, as is Kyle Johnson, who emerged last year as a reliable scorer at forward. Connor McGuire developed into a nightly double-double candidate and became a second-team all-conference pick, and Gardiner’s strength in the post continues with Cole Heaberlin and Ben Shaw, who missed all of last year but was an all-conference rookie as a sophomore.

“We return a veteran group for sure,” coach Jason Cassidy said. “I think it’s a team, you look at it on paper and go ‘Hey, they have the pieces to fill out every position.’ Because of that, it gives us the opportunity to play a couple of styles of basketball, instead of one style.”

Last season, Nokomis made its first trip to the Class A regional quarterfinals since 2003. With the return of senior guards Josh Smestad and Zach Hartsgrove, the Warriors have one of the top backcourts in the conference. Replacing the rebounding of Brad Allen, who graduated after averaging a double-double, will also be key.

“Those rebounds are a question mark for us. We’ve got to be really good at blocking out,” coach Ryan Martin said.

Cony gained notice around the league last year for its chaotic style of play, which included whole-team substitutions, full-court defense and a parade of 3-pointers. It generated inconsistent results before helping the Rams reach the A North semifinals, and coach T.J. Maines said the full-tilt approach will continue this season.

“The talent level has improved and the offseason has seen many guys put time in,” he said. “We will work hard and play the whole roster each game. Lots of threes and an up-tempo pace should make for an exciting winter.”

Jordan Roddy will be back as the centerpiece of the Rams’ offense, while Austin Parlin and Jake Dacus return as dangerous shooters and Amahde Carter, a forward who played more as the season went on, is back and Maines said he is “maybe the most athletic player in the league.”

Erskine had a great foundation coming into this season with senior center Noah Bonsant and junior guard Jack Jowett, but any expectations were put on hold after Bonsant suffered a preseason knee injury that, at press time, is awaiting an MRI to determine the severity.

“He means a whole lot to the team,” coach Tim Bonsant said. “Let’s face it, he’s a 15 (point), 15 (rebound) and seven or eight (blocks) guy. He’s pretty important to the team.”

If the injury is serious — the fear is a torn ACL — Coach Bonsant said the Eagles’ identity will have to change drastically.

“We’ll do more pressing, full-court man, 1-2-1-1 and we’ll make it an 84-foot game for 32 minutes,” he said. “We play pretty much a match-up zone right now. … Without a rim protector, you can’t play match-up zone.”

Last season Skowhegan upset top-seeded Medomak Valley in the regional quarterfinals to advance to the semis for the first time since 2001. With guards Cam Barnes and Marcus Christopher back, Skowhegan should be a playoff contender again.

“Those are going to be our key guys,” coach Tom Nadeau said. “We’ve got some kids who can shoot, when teams double team Cam and Marcus.”

Nadeau expects guards Colby Esty and Cole Pierce to have expanded roles this season, along with Kiel Lachapelle in the post.

Lawrence graduated a Mr. Basketball semifinalist in Mason Cooper, and the Bulldogs are young, with forward Braden Ballard the only senior. The development of a large junior class, led by guards Kobe Nadeau, Isaiah Schooler and Nick Robertson, as well as forwards Logan Fortin and Gavin Herrin, will be instrumental in the team’s growth.

“I think we’re going to have to prepare in practice with a bit of a chip on our shoulder,” coach Jason Pellerin said. “We have to stick together and be resilient.”

Mt. Blue has a new head coach, Charlie Castonguay, who looks to rebuild the Cougars after a one-win season. Senior point guard Marshall Doyon, senior guard/forward James Anderson and junior guard/forward Garrett Reynolds will lead the Cougars.

“This group of kids is tired of losing. They’re working hard,” Castonguay said.

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