SKOWHEGAN — Just so there’s no confusion, Nick Winchester tells you in no uncertain terms that he’s not interested in replaying the 2019 Class A North girls basketball championship game. He’s as convinced of that this week as he was as little as a few days after the final buzzer blew in February on his team’s upset win.

“No chance,” Winchester said Friday evening, a little over an hour before his Hampden Academy squad opened its defense of the regional title with a 60-57 win over Skowhegan.

“That’s why the tournament is fun, because you get an opportunity to do something once,” Winchester said. “But if we played (Skowhegan) 10 times, that same group, they’re going to win eight of those games. That was a group of kids that had a style of play that made it tough on opponents to play with them. You might play with them for a quarter, you might play with them for a half, but you weren’t going to do it for four quarters.”

Winchester admits he’s watched parts of that regional final dozens and dozens of times. His counterpart that night, Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc, likely has not. Was it serendipity or an act of will that scheduled the two teams to kick off the new season against one another?

Hampden Academy’s Megan Deans, left, battles for the loose ball with Skowhegan’s Samantha Bonneau, center, and Jaycie Christopher, right, in Skowhegan on Friday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Depends who you ask.

“I almost felt somebody looked at the NFL philosophy and said, ‘Let’s match these guys back up,’” Winchester said.

“I don’t think it matters who you play (on opening night),” LeBlanc said. “(Skowhegan athletic director Jon Christopher) will always ask me about the schedule, but I say we’ll play whoever you put in front of us. That’s the mentality we’ve always had. You have to play them all at some point. Some teams might not get off to fast starts, so you might want to play early. But it really doesn’t matter to me.”

Having already lost twice to Skowhegan last year during the regular season — by an average of better than 20 points — Hampden hit on the magic formula at the Augusta Civic Center in February. The Broncos got stellar guard play, a big night from 6-foot-3 center Bailey Donovan, put the conference player of the year Annie Cooke in foul trouble and found a way to win their second straight regional championship.

But that, as they say, was last year. And both Winchester and Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc are more than happy to keep it there.

There was no talk at all about revenge or extra motivation Friday night in Skowhegan.

“If we’d have had last year’s group (back), there would probably be more of a revenge factor,” LeBlanc said. “I know some of the kids have talked about it. I don’t talk about it, because I don’t like talking about it. I could see it could be a revenge game, but not this year just because of the personnel.

“I think it depends a lot on the personnel you have.”

Personnel question marks are central to both teams in the first week of the new season. Not only is Donovan gone from Hampden, so too is Camryn Bouchard. For Skowhegan, its entire starting five was lost to graduation, including Cooke and Sydney Ames, replaced by a host of fresh faces, unproven at the varsity level.

In that way, beginning the long, nearly three-month process to making it through the regional tournament was far more important that a win, a loss or even the final score Friday night.

“It’s a process. We talked about it (Thursday) night at practice,” LeBlanc said. “We need to look at the big picture. We have one goal, and that’s to make the playoffs. We’re not going to make the playoffs tonight. Win or lose, it’s part of the procedure to get to where we want to be at the end.”

Winchester echoed the same sentiments.

“It’s not about a win or a loss, because that’s not going to make a difference in how things finish up in February,” Winchester said. “Tonight’s about setting a tone for how you want your team to play and how you want people to see you. Tonight’s all about establishing an identity. For us, that’s going to be different.”

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