The Waterville girls basketball team went undefeated in the regular season last year, reached the Class B North final, and has all five starters coming back for this winter.

Suffice to say, coach Rob Rodrigue knows there will be plenty of eyes on the Purple Panthers this season.

“People are expecting big things out of us,” he said. “We talk about that often. … We’re trying to be really level-headed about that.”

Waterville isn’t alone. Promising teams dot the central Maine landscape, and there will be plenty of players making their own storylines as the season progresses. With the season set to kick off Friday, here are some of the top teams and players to watch this year:

TEAMS

Waterville: The Purple Panthers return the five starters, as well as the top two bench players. Seniors Sadie Garling and Maddie Martin anchor the lineup, but juniors Jayda Murray, Paige St. Pierre and Lindsay Given also return to starting spots, and juniors Kali Thompson and Abigail Saucier are starting-caliber players coming off the bench. Garling’s a dead-eye shooter, and Martin and Thompson are tough on the boards.

Where it could get tricky for Waterville, however, is with the target on the back. The Purple Panthers could fly under the radar last year. Not this time.

“Everybody’s going to give us their best game,” Rodrigue said. “Every night, we have the possibility of putting someone into the tournament. … Everyone really thinks we’re the team to be beat, so we’ve (had) a lot of discussions about that.”

Messalonskee: Always a contender, the Eagles could be a tougher out than they’ve been in a couple of years. They have a top-tier player in Gabrielle Wener and a deep, experienced core featuring senior Bri Benecke, sophomore Grace Wener and junior Brooke Martin. With 11 seniors and juniors back in the mix, the Eagles won’t find a situation too big for them.

“We have a great mix of size and talent and ability,” coach Keith Derosby said. “I think our basketball I.Q.’s pretty high. … We understand the game, we know what to do, so we can kind of adjust and make changes on the fly.”

Gardiner: Last year was supposed to be a tough year for the Tigers. Instead, Gardiner went 12-6 and finished fourth in Class A North.

“Last year kind of took us by surprise with the success we had,” coach Mike Gray said. “The girls will kind of admit, we may have overachieved a little.”

The expectations are much higher this time around. With the top two scorers in Bailey Poore (12.9 points per game) and Jaycie Stevens (9.5) back, and with a 6-foot-3 freshman coming on board in Lizzy Gruber, the Tigers might just find themselves the team to beat in the region.

“We know we have a lot of pieces coming back,” Gray said. “The girls understand that we have a chance to be one of the better teams in our league.”

Winthrop: After going 17-3 last year and finishing second in the C South standings, the Ramblers could be just as good this time around. Aaliyah WilsonFalcone is back as one of the best all-around guards in the Mountain Valley Conference, and Kena Souza, Jillian Schmelzer and Madison Forgue were among the higher-scoring Ramblers last year.

“We know there’s not a lot o room for improvement with our place,” coach Joe Burnham said, “but we hope to make that improvement.”

Rangeley: There’s a new coach on the sideline as Brittany DiPompo replaces Heidi Deery and her two titles, but the Lakers should still be the East/West Conference’s team to beat. Olivia Pye and Winnie LaRochelle were two of the team’s best offensive players during a tournament run that reached the D South final, and they’ll be back to lead the way again.

Don’t forget about: Winslow, Lawrence, Maranacook, Oak Hill, Monmouth.

PLAYERS

Gabrielle Wener, Messalonskee: The 6-4 Monmouth commit has seen her game evolve since her freshman year, and has become a versatile anchor for the Eagles. She averaged 16.2 points, 9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last year — all top fives in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference — and can score from all areas on the floor.

“You don’t average 16.2 points and eight or nine rebounds without being able to do a lot of things,” coach Keith Derosby said. “She’s got a step-back shot, she has an ability to hesitate and go to the rim, she’s got the ability to catch in the lane and make a post move. … Her confidence has grown tremendously.”

Lexi Mittelstadt, Mt. Blue: The Cougars’ inability to get over the hump and into the playoffs has overshadowed their point guard, but Mittelstadt, a UMaine commit, is a true KVAC standout.

Mittelstadt averaged nearly 20 points a game last year and is on track to reach 1,000 points for her career this season. She’s a talented ball-handler, and a gritty defender.

“Every season, she has just had tremendous growth in the offseason. She’s such a hard worker. She trains like a professional athlete,” coach Fred Conlogue said. “She’s more than a special player.”

Aaliyah WilsonFalcone, Winthrop: In WilsonFalcone, the Ramblers have a player who can play a variety of roles. She’s a guard and a tenacious on-ball defender, but she’s also strong enough to box out taller players for rebounds. She averaged 11.7 points, 7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.2 steals, and all numbers were in the top 10 in the Mountain Valley Conference.

“There are not many girls that coaches gameplan around their defense, but she’s one of them,” coach Joe Burnham said. “She’s sort of the heartbeat of our team. As she goes, we go lots of times.”

Jaycie Christopher, Skowhegan: A freshman on a senior-loaded team, Christopher still managed to put up 11.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Now a sophomore, Christopher will be Skowhegan’s anchor, and a game-changer.

“Jaycie can do it all. That’s the thing that’s going to make her dangerous,” coach Mike LeBlanc said. “She’ll go by the big girl, she’ll shoot over the small girl. … She can create for herself, which a lot of kids can’t do.”

Sadie Garling, Waterville: Rodrigue put it simply when asked about his senior guard.

“There’s not a better catch-and-shoot kid around,” he said.

Garling proved that last year, averaging 17 points per game. She’ll be back this year to command defenses’ attention.

“She automatically distorts the defense. We’re at an advantage just because she’s standing on the wing,” Rodrigue said. “With her ability to catch and shoot, you have to allocate at least one defender to her.”

Don’t forget about: Iris Ireland, Hall-Dale; Bailey Poore, Gardiner; Sarah Poli, Lawrence; Hannah Coolen, Mount View, Sara Linkletter, MCI.

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