AUGUSTA — The Skowhegan Area High School girls basketball team is 4-1, sitting pretty atop Class A North and enjoying a hot start to the season in these oh-so-cold months.

Same story as last year, right? Not exactly.

While the 2016-17 Indians likewise began their season with a rise to the top tier of the standings in the opening weeks, the backdrops couldn’t be more different. Last year’s Skowhegan squad crashed the party from off the radar, thrusting itself into a crowd of preseason favorites and maintaining the pace until the end of the season.

This year’s team, however, was a popular pick as the team to beat coming in. With the entire starting lineup and roster back, followers of the sport had high expectations for the Indians. And the players heard them.

“I think we all feel a lot of pressure,” junior forward Alyssa Everett said. “Eight players (back) on our roster, that’s a lot. Because all the reporters and everybody are all over us, doing stories, it puts a lot of pressure on us.”

The Indians have felt it. It just hasn’t shown. The Indians have earned signature wins already this year, beating a regional finalist from last year in Nokomis by 13, a preseason favorite in Hampden by nine, and then on Wednesday night, a Class AA team in Windham, 58-35, in the Maine Gold Rush Tournament at the Augusta Civic Center.

“I’m pretty sure they’re ready to embrace it,” coach Mike LeBlanc said of the spotlight cast upon his team. “Nothing seems to bother them too much. They’re kind of laid-back, unlike me, I get all riled up. They’re laid-back, and they take things in stride pretty well.”

The spotlight is on his team because of what it did during what, on paper, seemed to be a rebuilding season last year. Despite fielding an entirely sophomore starting lineup, Skowhegan went 14-4, claimed the second seed in A North and went all the way to the regional semifinals before falling to Nokomis. And with state champion Messalonskee and other contenders in Gardiner and Nokomis losing key players, the Indians appeared poised for a big year.

“I feel like all along, people have been saying we’re going to be good, when we get older we’re going to have potential and whatever,” junior forward Annie Cooke said. “It kind of builds up on us and we have to live up to that.”

Cooke’s comments mirrored those of her coach.

“I think last year we surprised a lot of people with how fast we grew up as a team,” LeBlanc said. “This year, I think a lot of people are putting the bulls-eye on us, and we’ve got to be able to respond to that.”

Skowhegan has, by leaning on a few trademark assets. One is balance. The Indians made up for their lack of experience last year by relying on the group over the one, and this season it’s the same thing. Sometimes, junior guard Mariah Dunbar is the key weapon. Sometimes it’s Sydney Reed, who scored a game-high 18 points a week and a half ago against Nokomis. Sometimes it’s Everett, who had eight points but 11 rebounds against Windham (2-2). On Wednesday it was Cooke, who scored 26 points — 18 in the second half — to go with 11 rebounds.

“I stress that we need to play together as a team, trust our teammates, and that anybody on any day is able to be our leading scorer,” LeBlanc said. “You can coach and scout against a basketball player, but not an athletic team. That’s the way we look at it.”

Another is conditioning. There are eight varsity players on Skowhegan’s roster and one swing player, so the Indians’ starters can’t sit for long stretches of time.

“I condition them, condition them and condition them,” LeBlanc said. “We talked about it from day one when I took over the job that we will never be out-conditioned. We might lose, we might not have as much talent, but we’ll be plenty conditioned.”

Both strengths were on display Wednesday. In addition to Cooke’s and Everett’s performances, the Indians also got seven points apiece from Lindsay Warren (the lone senior) and Reed, who also grabbed eight rebounds to contribute to Skowhegan’s dominance on the glass. And while the Indians never trailed, they gave Windham less and less hope for a comeback, building their lead from 23-16 at halftime to 39-25 after three quarters, then finally to the 23-point margin of victory. After shooting 36 percent from the field in the first half, the Indians shot 50 percent in the fourth quarter.

“We do that a lot,” Everett said. “Once we get going, we boost each other and we keep going. We don’t get down when we miss shots. We just keep going.”

The formula doesn’t work every time. Skowhegan did drop a game, 60-58 to MCI. It happens.

“They executed a little bit better than us,” LeBlanc said. “Our shots didn’t fall, and some days they’re not going to. We didn’t dwell on it. We got outplayed, they beat us, we just had to refocus and come back stronger.”

The first opportunity to answer was Thursday night against Windham, and it was another test passed for a team playing a season with a target on its back — and judging by the results, getting used to it.

“I think it’s good to have something to push toward and try to accomplish and stuff like that,” Cooke said. “But at the same time you feel like you need to live up to that because everyone’s talking about it.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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