A few years ago, there was Nia Irving and Lawrence. Then Sophie Holmes and Messalonskee. Last year, Annie Cooke and Skowhegan were who everyone was chasing.

This time, however, it’s a wide-open race for the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference and Class A North throne.

“I think there are a lot of teams that have the ability (to contend),” Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby said. “There’s a little more equity in the schedule this year. … I think there are a lot of teams that can easily find themselves in that mix.”

Messalonskee’s Mackenzie Mayo (13) takes a shot as she is defended by Lawrence’s Sarah Poli (34) on Tuesday in Fairfield. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I think it’s anybody’s race, to be honest with you,” Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc said. “Those top seeds, I think anybody can beat anybody.”

As always, though, some teams have a head start on the rest. Count Messalonskee among those teams, as the Eagles have a lot of boxes checked off: a star in Gabrielle Wener, fine complementary pieces in Bri Benecke and Grace Wener, and a whole lot of depth and support. Messalonskee brings back 11 juniors and seniors.

“We have a lot of experience. We definitely have a lot of length and a lot of athletic ability, that’s without question,” Derosby said. “We just need to make sure that on any night, it’s someone stepping up. If it’s someone different every day, I’m fine with that.”

And yet, Messalonskee may not be the team to beat once the season gets rolling. That could be Gardiner, which rose to the fourth seed in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Now the Tigers are stocked for the present, with the two top scorers back in Bailey Poore (12.9 points, 9.9 rebounds per game last year) and Jaycie Stevens (9.5 points), as well as a key player in Kassidy Collins, who missed last season with a knee injury.

“They’re buying into it,” coach Mike Gray said. “They just want to play hard, and they’re never content.”

The Tigers also have an up-and-coming talent in freshman Lizzy Gruber, who at 6-3 is already a talent on the boards.

“You don’t normally have a freshman where you can already tell she’s ready to contribute in a big way,” Gray said.

Lawrence is poised to challenge for a top spot as well. Megan Curtis, Savannah Weston and Sarah Poli provide some continuity after playing substantial minutes last season, and the Bulldogs also got a significant addition in Deleyni Carr, who transferred after reaching 1,000 points with Temple Academy and who should plug right in and start at guard.

“We’ve got a lot of things to figure out,” coach Greg Chesley said. “We’re definitely athletic, we play hard. I look for us to be pretty competitive, to get up and down and do some good things.”

Skowhegan shouldn’t be counted out, even after it lost all five of the starters from a team that reached the A North final. Guard Emma Duffy is a senior leader, and sophomore guard Jaycie Christopher averaged 11.4 points and 4.5 rebounds while making the KVAC all-rookie team.

“(Christopher) can win some games on her own,” Chesley said. “They’re still going to be pretty good.”

Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc said he’ll need to be patient as a reworked lineup and rotation adapts to the varsity game and pace. And he has no predictions for when it might all click.

“They were able to dominate at the lower levels, but now they’re going to be playing kids three and four years older,” he said. “It’s a total guessing game. … We were trying to figure out where we might end up, and we just can’t. We can’t put our finger on it. … That’s an unknown with this group, because we don’t know how they’re going to react.”

Erskine, a potential dark horse, has a new coach in Bob Witts, and the former Skowhegan boss takes over a team that made the A North playoffs last year and. With top guard Jordan Linscott and a host of starters back, hopes are high of making it back to the Augusta Civic Center and going on a run.

“We expect to be able to compete every night, play as a team and play together,” Witts said. “If we can get them all on the same page we could have a solid year.”

Mt. Blue is looking for a break or two after missing the playoffs each of the past three years by one spot. The Cougars have a great place to start — senior point guard Lexi Mittelstadt, a Maine commit, thrives with the ball in her hands and might be the best all-around player in the conference.

Eva Stevens leads a supporting cast that will try to get Mt. Blue over the hump.

“It was discouraging that we didn’t make it,” coach Fred Conlogue said. “We’re focused and really locked into trying (to qualify). That’s our No. 1 goal.”

Cony, 2-16 a year ago, is looking to end its run as an A North afterthought. With ample speed and athleticism at all positions, this could be the year the Rams make that move.

“Using our speed defensively and in transition will be keys for us going forward,” coach Adam Rich said. “With a lot of experience coming back we expect to compete at a high level this year.”

Nokomis brings a young, guard-oriented team, but the Warriors will have some depth, and coach Michelle Paradis is eager to see the team grow as the season progresses.

“I think that our being young and inexperienced will help us,” she said. “We are going to make mistakes and they will not care. We have short memories and like to move on quickly and learn to get better.”

RUNDOWN

2018-19 STATE CHAMP

Class A — Greely

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Gabrielle Wener, Messalonskee: Monmouth signing scores and challenges shots, and could be a 20-10 player this season for the Eagles.

Lexi Mittelstadt, Mt. Blue: Before heading to play at UMaine, senior point guard will look to first reach 1,000 points, then guide Cougars to playoffs.

Jaycie Christopher, Skowhegan: Sophomore guard was second team all-KVAC last year at 11.4 points per game, and will be Skowhegan’s go-to player.

GAMES TO WATCH

Dec. 30: Gardiner at Messalonskee

Jan. 7: Erskine at Mt. Blue

Jan. 9: Skowhegan at Hampden

Jan. 20: Lawrence at Messalonskee

Feb. 6: Gardiner at Lawrence

PREDICTED CHAMPS

Class A – Greely

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