All along, Mike Gray could see Lizzy Gruber coming. But the Gardiner girls basketball coach didn’t quite see this.

He didn’t see Gruber making her debut with the Tigers and, three games into her freshman season, emerging as a focal point on the team. But that’s what’s happened; with averages of 15.7 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks a game, Gruber has given Gardiner, already a preseason favorite in Class A North, a whole new dimension.

“The biggest surprise is just how quickly she has been able to adapt to the high school game,” Gray said. “We’ve known for a couple of years that she was going to show up and be a really important player in the program. I just think none of us thought it was going to be this much of an impact, this quickly.”

At 6-foot-3, Gruber has fit in seamlessly with a team that already had a strong cast of returning players led by guard Jaycie Stevens and forward Bailey Poore. In perhaps her most impressive performance this season, she scored 19 points while grabbing 15 rebounds and blocking six shots against Mt. Blue.

“She gives us that piece that we’ve never had,” Gray said. “We’ve had undersized posts and we’ve had good guard play, but we haven’t had a legitimate big who can affect the game on both ends.”

That’s not to say Gray and his team didn’t think she’d be a contributor. He and his coaching staff had seen her coming since middle school, and then this summer watched as she put her skills on display against older players.

“That was a lot this summer. We practiced for a week, and the older kids were like ‘Whoa, we didn’t know she was going to be this ready to help,’ ” Gray said. “She’s stronger physically, I think, than a lot of teams might think. For her frame, she’s considerably stronger than she might look. Where I think a lot of kids might get pushed around, she’s going to get pushed around some, but she’ll push back.”

Gray knows it’s going to get harder for his freshman standout. As word gets out around the league that Gruber is a more vital piece for Gardiner than a luxury off the bench, teams will make it a point to play her more physically, understanding that if she can be slowed, so can the Tigers. Gray said that already started to happen during Gardiner’s 58-44 win over Cony on Friday.

“I know that’s what I would do. We expect that to happen,” he said. “We’ve kind of talked about it already. … It works to an extent, but the other piece that that does is it allows us to make adjustments.”

Even if the teams focus on Gruber, her teammates know that’ll just make life easier for them.

“No one has that attitude of ‘I’m going to miss out on some touches,’ ” Gray said. “It’s been exactly the opposite. I’ve had different kids basically telling me ‘Look, I’m getting more open looks than I ever got before.’ And they love it.”

 

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There was precious little varsity experience returning to Winslow when the preseason began in November. So far, however, that hasn’t had much of an impact on the Black Raiders.

Winslow’s gotten out of the gates to a hot start, going 3-0 to begin the week in fourth place in the Class B North standings. One of four undefeated teams in the region, the Black Raiders have wins over Mount View (64-26), Belfast (65-30) and Caribou (42-33).

Coach Brenda Beckwith hasn’t been surprised to see the relatively untested mix clicking in the early going.

“I think we’re a good basketball team, and when you can give them more experience, they’re just going to build on that,” she said. “My juniors have almost no varsity experience, and that’s rare in girls basketball. … They’re going to learn on the go, and they’re great. They’re awesome.”

Beckwith said her team lacks a go-to scorer, but is balanced and has the ability to fill several roles. Guards Silver Clukey and Bodhi Littlefield, a senior and junior, respectively, have been the leaders, but Winslow has the players it needs to perform a variety of responsibilities.

The road’s about to get tougher, with Oceanside (2-1), Hermon (3-0) and Waterville (2-1) up next, but Beckwith likes the way her team is looking.

“We don’t have one or two players that has to get 20 points for us in a game to win,” she said. “We’re just balanced. We have some size, we have quickness, we have good shooting, we play good defense, but we’re not so spectacular at one thing that we can say ‘Well, if this doesn’t work, we’ll just have so-and-so shoot the ball.’ That’s not how it works with us. … The good pieces that fit together are playing really well.”

 

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Waterville has already lost as many times as it did last year, and more than it did during the regular season, but after a 52-46 loss to Presque Isle, coach Rob Rodrigue wasn’t about to push any panic buttons.

“I think it’s an opportunity for our kids to learn,” he said. “Presque Isle played very well. It was a big game, big crowd. I wish my kids would have responded a little better, but Presque Isle played very well. They hit nine threes on us. … I firmly believe any time any team shoots it well, you have a chance to be successful.”

The loss to the Wildcats did nothing to hurt the Purple Panthers’ position. At 2-1 entering Monday, Waterville was still in first place in B North, and Rodrigue said he liked how his team responded to the setback.

“It bugged them a little bit, and I’m kind of happy it did, to be honest with you,” he said. “It might be a little bit of a wake-up call. … This group isn’t used to losing many games, so I’m interested to see how they come out (Monday) and Friday (at Old Town), and even more so, in practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, see if they understand to have that sense of urgency.”

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