Messalonskee won’t be the prohibitive favorite it was in Class A North a season ago, but the Eagles are still pretty darn good. They graduated three key players, including Sophie Holmes, from a team that went unbeaten last year en route to its first Class A state championship.

Among the returning players are senior point guard Ally Turner, off guard Mikayla Wilson and center/forward Gabrielle Wener. At 6 feet, Turner is one of the premier defenders in the state, can drive to the basket and find open teammates. Wener, at 6-foot-2, emerged last season and has improved since.

She’s a versatile player who can score in the paint or beyond the 3-point arc.

“She had a great summer,” Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby said. “She has great offensive instincts.”

Derosby knows his team is circled on several schedules.

“I told them there’s a target and be ready,” he said. “I frankly want another one. We’re not going to get greedy but we don’t want to get complacent.”

The Eagles return seven other varsity players with varying degrees of experience.

“More will be asked of last year’s subs,” Derosby said. “We’ve got a few more question marks this year.”

There are several other contenders in the division. Hampden Academy and Skowhegan return their lineups intact while Lawrence brings back a veteran group. Nokomis returns a versatile team and some exciting new players as well.

Skowhegan went 14-4 in the regular season and is still young with just one senior on the team. The Indians will start five juniors, led by forward Annie Cooke.

“I think they overachieved last year,” coach Mike LeBlanc said. “We’re not going to surprise anybody. They need to maybe take that next step.”

Long-time assistant Greg Chesley takes over as head coach at Lawrence and welcomes back seven players who went 12-6 last year. Seniors Camryn Caldwell, Molly Folsom and Hunter Mercier all played on the Bulldogs state championship team three years ago and are surrounded by a pretty talented cast.

“This group shoots it really well,” Chesley said. “I have pretty high expectations.”

Nokomis graduated a couple of scorers but returns eight players while bringing in some strong freshmen. Chelsea Crockett, Hannah Meservey and Maci Reali are veteran players who helped the Warriors go 14-4 last season.

“I think we might surprise people even though we have a lot of younger kids,” coach Michelle Paradis said.

Gardiner suffered a blow to its firepower with the graduations of Lauren Chadwick and Mary Toman, and the Tigers will need a player to step up and take over the scoring and playmaking for the team to challenge for the front of the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference. There are candidates, however; Leslie Stevens averaged just under 9 points per game last season, while Aimee Adams averaged 6.5 and just under six rebounds per contest.

“We are a hard-working team that will look to play tough defense and run the floor, looking to push the pace of the game,” coach Mike Gray said. “Our defensive intensity will allow us to compete with each team on our schedule. I expect that our seniors will set the tone for our team on both ends of the floor.”

Cony will look for positive strides after winning only one game last season. The Rams will benefit from continuity, as all but two players are back and five seniors in Allee Cloutier, Mackenzie Lewis, Cari Hopkins, Olivia Varney and Sarah Caron return after playing significant varsity minutes.

“On the offensive end, we are looking to get out and run,” coach Adam Rich said. “Get the ball up the floor as quickly as we can and look for some easy scoring opportunities in transition. Defensively, we are mostly going to play in a half-court set with a lot of trapping in the half court.”

Erskine finds itself in a similar position to Cony. Jordan Linscott returns as the team’s point guard and distributor, while Bailey Cloutier, Lauren Wood, Lydia Boucher and Liz Sugg lead an experienced quartet that will try to help the younger players acclimate to the high school pace and make a play for the Eagles’ first postseason bid in years.

“What the team lacks in varsity experience, we hope to make up with through our athleticism and defensive pressure,” coach Mitch Donar said. “I still wouldn’t dare to ever count these girls out with their competitive spirit and team camaraderie.”

Mt. Blue continues to rebuild, but second-year coach Fred Conlogue has seen progress.

“We return four girls who played a lot last year,” he said. “It’s an athletic group.”