The response is laughter. Always laughter.

Ask Class A North coaches how anyone can stop the undefeated the Skowhegan Area High School girls basketball team, and every one of them laughs.

“They’re so good,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said, having lost by 24 points to Skowhegan at home.

“They’re just relentless. That’s the only word I can come up with,” added Nick Winchester, coach of the defending regional champion Broncos, who lost twice to Skowhegan by a total of 39 points this season.

“Well, there’s a way,” Lawrence coach Greg Chesley said, though his reasoning deals in hypotheticals and not-as-yet tested theories.

If there is a way to beat top-seeded Skowhegan, nobody has found it yet. The Indians rolled through an 18-0  regular season, averaging 55.7 points per game and a margin of victory of 23.3 points per game. Better yet, when the lights were brightest, in the nine games Skowhegan played against fellow Class A North tournament teams that margin of victory rose three points per game.

Led by a senior class featuring four three-year starters, Skowhegan boasts Annie Cooke in the paint and a bevy of long-range specialists. Throw in talented freshman Jaycie Christopher, who with her size can play any position on the floor — and play it well — and the Indians don’t appear to have a weakness. If there is one, nobody’s found it.

“It starts and ends with being able to contain Annie,” Winchester said. “She does so many things for them that creates offense for herself or the other players on the floor. If you have to double-team her to slow her down, she’s going to find the open player. She’s a woman playing seemingly against girls. She’s that strong, that athletic and that aggressive.”

In a 48-24 loss to Skowhegan on Jan. 17, Gardiner saw just how dangerous Skowhegan could be. But even in breaking down another balanced night of scoring from the Indians, Gray saw something else more daunting for any opponent.

He saw Skowhegan’s killer instinct.

“They come out and jump on you right in the first quarter,” Gray said. “They’re not only meeting everyone’s best punch every night, but they’re hitting back — and hard. They’re going to be a really tough matchup for everybody.”

Class B Winslow was able to slow Skowhegan in an odd game on Jan. 29. The Black Raiders stalled and held the ball, passing up opportunities on offense, to try and keep the Indians from running them out of their own gym in Winslow. In the end, Skowhegan still nearly doubled up the hosts, winning 22-14 in a game in which they never trailed. All the stalling did was prolong the inevitable.

Skowhegan will meet No. 8 Camden Hills in the regional quarterfinals Friday night. No. 2 Hampden Academy pairs off with No. 7 Erskine prior, while No. 3 Lawrence faces No. 6 Medomak Valley and No. 4 Gardiner plays No. Messalonskee in the afternoon.

Every team save for Medomak has taken a swing at Skowhegan this season. Hampden, Lawrence, Messalonskee and Erskine all faced the Indians twice.

“I think you have to hit a couple of shots early and get them on the ropes to see how they respond, because nobody’s really had them in that position,” Chesley said of Skowhegan, noting the Indians’ penchant for playing with early leads. “When we went up there (for the regular season finale), their pressure killed us. You’ve got to break their pressure. You’ve got to meet their intensity. They play hard, aggressive, and it’s 84 feet with them.”

Last year, Skowhegan made it to the regional semifinals and were a Sydney Ames missed 3-pointer at the buzzer from shocking Messalonskee. This season, the lumps they took as freshman and sophomores, and the strides they made as juniors, are finally paying off.

Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc always took the long view with his team.

“Looking back, I figured we’d probably be at the top this year,” LeBlanc said. “I didn’t think we’d go undefeated, because the schedule was so tough. But they’ve been highly touted as the next group to do everything, and to their credit they’ve lived up to it.”

“I think this group realizes that this is the last chance,” Winchester said of what he’s noticed in Skowhegan. “They’re playing with a certain level of urgency I hadn’t seen them play with the last couple of years. That’s a tribute to Mike as a coach — he has them prepared to play with that urgency. They’ve now gotten to where I think people thought they would be.”

But, as LeBlanc points out, everybody is in the same spot now. And tournament play is laced with obstacles and upsets, injuries and illness.

“We all start out at 0-0 now,” LeBlanc said.

Gray and his fellow Class A North coaches are trying to take the same approach, even when realizing what it would take to turn talk of beating Skowhegan into actually pulling it off.

“Crazier things have happened in the tournament,” Gray said. “You get on that court, all it takes is one team off and one team on and anything happens once you get there. If anyone can get them, that’s the attitude you’re going to have to have.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC


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