Few people have been more surprised by the Maranacook Community School boys basketball team’s success this season than the man overseeing it.

The Black Bears are thriving a third of the way through the season, sitting third in the Class B South standings at 5-1, and coach Rob Schmidt has been as impressed as anyone by what he’s seen from his bunch.

“Looking at the schedule eight months ago, I was not super confident. I didn’t know how this was all going to fall into place,” he said. “I think it’s really just jelling for us right now, and we are playing with some confidence.”

As impressive as Maranacook’s record is, it becomes even more so when considering who the Black Bears have played. Maranacook routed Erskine, currently sixth in A North, in the opener, and also has wins over Winslow and Maine Central Institute, currently playoff teams in B North. The one loss came to Oceanside, an A North finalist last year that returns its best player in Michael Norton, and that was by only three points.

So far, Schmidt says, the big reason for the turnaround has been two-fold. The Black Bears were young last year, and this year are more seasoned and physically bigger and stronger, allowing them to carry into many games an athletic advantage they didn’t have a season ago.

“I think the work ethic has always been there for this group,” he said. “They have never quit, they’ve always done what their coaches have asked, they’ve always been competitors. … But it was just really nice to see that physical growth over the last year, and also just the maturity.

“There’s no panic. I think they believe in themselves and believe in the team.”

Maranacook has also embraced a fast-paced, shot-happy, pressure-based scheme that has allowed it to utilize what Schmidt always saw as an advantage in depth and versatility. It’s been a growing process, Schmidt said, but the Black Bears have quickly embraced the tenets of their new scheme.

“It’s been a learning curve, definitely. Maybe more so for the coaches to stay with it through tough times, where perhaps in the past we would have wanted to fall back on some old habits,” he said. “But we look at our personnel now and believe in all of them and we trust all of them.”

Maranacook will get its next chance to test its style of play — and perhaps extend its hot start — on Friday against Cony, which employs the same scheme and was even Schmidt’s inspiration before the season.

“I think it’s going to be a track meet,” he said. “I think it’s going to be two teams trying to get the ball in the net as fast as they can and get 84 feet down the court as fast as they can. … I think we’re going to be running, a lot, and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

• • •

The season was still young, but after four straight losses to open the winter, Oak Hill coach Tom Smith knew his team was due for an attitude adjustment.

“I think they were relying too much on last year, (thinking) we were just going to win,” he said. “I basically told them, I said ‘You can’t rely on last year’s performance. You guys have to come out and compete. If you want to get to the playoffs, we need to start turning this around, and it starts on the defensive end.’ “

The message has begun to sink in for the Raiders. After losing four straight games — including two by blowout — Oak Hill bounced back by winning three straight, the latest a 42-40 decision at Madison on Wednesday night.

“Each game for us now is a playoff game. That’s how we’ve approached it,” Smith said. “We’ve really gotten along with that concept and they’ve started to play better.”

The biggest improvement has been on defense, where Smith made a change after defeats that included an overtime loss to Monmouth and routs against Richmond and Dirigo. He ditched his original man-to-man scheme for a 3-2 matchup zone, with the goal of using Oak Hill’s quickness at the guard position to better defend shooters on the perimeter.

It’s worked. After allowing over 60 points to its first three opponents, Oak Hill has held each of its last four to 43 or fewer.

“Defensively, they’re starting to get it,” Smith said. “If we can keep teams from scoring and keep us in the games, then we’re going to be fine.”

Defense has been crucial for the Raiders after losing a high-scoring forward and guard in Marcus Bailey and Evan Boston, respectively, but even the offense has started to find itself. Darryn Bailey has emerged as a standout, and freshman Gavin Rawstron has progressed faster than expected and become a double-digit scorer.

Depth is still an issue — Bailey (15 points, 12 rebounds), Rawstron, Cohen Donnell and D.J. Pushard were the only players to score against Madison — but Smith likes where the team is headed.

“We just need to continue with the intensity,” he said. “I think these guys understand that we’re not a scoring juggernaut. … Defense is going to keep us in a lot of games. That’s what we’ve preached the last three games, and it’s worked.”

• • •

For Gardiner, the new year brought a quick end to a holiday cold snap.

The Tigers lost three of their last four games of 2017, bringing their record to 3-3. Gardiner found its form two days into 2018, however, roughing up Mt. Ararat on Tuesday 91-71 to improve to 4-3.

“The kids really played well and moved the basketball well (against Mt. Ararat),” coach Jason Cassidy said. “The kids really executed a good gameplan (Tuesday) night against what we thought was a very quality opponent.”

It ended a brief skid that saw the Tigers fall back to .500 after winning their first two games. All losses were close. After losing by five to Cony, Gardiner beat Erskine and then lost to Camden Hills by four and Medomak Valley by three.

“We challenged the kids to come out with a statement game and really play together, play well,” Cassidy said. “The kids responded well. They weren’t happy with the two losses.”

It hasn’t been an easy first few weeks for Gardiner, which has had to play on the road as a result of storm damage to its gym. The Tigers were without Isaiah Magee and Kyle Johnson for three games, got them back for the Camden Hills game, then struggled to reintegrate the two key players into the mix.

“Anytime you add two new guys in, it takes some time to have things flowing smoothly,” Cassidy said.

Gardiner has also had to battle health setbacks. Forward Cam Austin dealt with a concussion, forward Cole Heaberlin is still working through a shoulder injury from football season, and the team had the flu go through the locker room the week before Christmas.

“Sometimes you get hit by that flu bug and you can’t practice properly,” Cassidy said. “It was just a combination of factors. You need your team there to work together.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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