The season had started, and it seemed like the Messalonskee girls basketball team had tripped at the gun. The Eagles were sitting at 1-2 after losses to Lawrence and Erskine, and then 2-3 after another defeat against Hampden.

This was supposed to be one of the top teams in Class A North, sitting below .500. Neither coach Keith Derosby nor his players, however, lost confidence that they still would be.

“I don’t think they really listen much to that stuff. They’re just a fun group,” Derosby said. “They seemed to want to just do what we do, the best that we can.”

The Eagles have been doing pretty well of late, riding a six-game winning streak that has them at 8-3 to start the week and in the fourth spot in A North. Messalonskee still sits behind Hampden (10-1), Gardiner (9-1) and Lawrence (7-4), but considering the rocky start, it’s a good place to be.

“Even though you get a commitment in the summer, the coach and the athletes kind of have to figure (it) out as you go,” Derosby said. “Based on what the league looks like, you’ve got to be fluid. I think some kids just in different roles, being able to do different things, opened up some opportunities for some other athletes.”

Even as the team stumbled early, Derosby knew the team’s best basketball was around the corner.

“I’ve learned through my time in high school basketball that the season, it’s a grind,” Derosby said. “At any one point, if you start fixating on an individual win or a loss, you’re going to lose the opportunity to make that growth.”

As the Eagles have started to win the kinds of games they were losing, the starting lineup has settled. Gabrielle Wener, who ran into tough defensive matchups and double-teams early on, learned to help set up her teammates rather than feeling pressure to fight through the defense. Bri Benecke has found a rhythm running the floor, and is averaging seven assists per game. Jordan Devine has been the team’s highest scorer of late, and Grace Wener and Mackie Mayo have been scoring threats and post presences inside.

The team’s depth has also been the strength Derosby envisioned it would be in November, with a versatile bench giving him plenty of combinations to combat an opponent.

“It’s really nice to have … kids that could get minutes for a lot of other teams come in and give you a spark,” he said. “It’s nice to have complete confidence. I’m pretty sure anytime I go to my bench we can find a solution.”

 

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There’s a similar theme at play at Madison, where the Bulldogs have gone from 3-3 to 7-3 and a fourth-place standing in C South, and are showing the potential that came with bringing back every starter from a team that went 5-13 last year before embarking on a trip to the regional semifinals.

“We’re playing very hard. We’re transitioning from defense to offense very well, and I think we’re really looking to push the ball a little more than we have been,” coach Al Veneziano said. “We’re trying to push the ball under control, and if we have fastbreaks, take advantage of them. We certainly did that on Friday.”

Friday was perhaps the signature win of the season so far, a 51-30 victory over a Monmouth team that came in with an 8-1 record. For a true turning point, however, Veneziano pointed to a game six days earlier, when the Bulldogs earned a 51-44 win over Mountain Valley, a contender in B South.

“We came from behind, we were down 11-0 in the first quarter,” Veneziano said. “I think that was a big confidence boost for us. … When you look at the Hall-Dale game (a 59-49 win) and now this one (against Monmouth), it’s a big three-game stretch for us.”

At the same time, Veneziano knows he can’t take the success for granted. The Bulldogs aren’t deep, and rely heavily on their lineup of Emily Edgerly, Lauria LeBlanc, Katie Worthen, Abi Spaulding and Brooke McKenney. Madison could be a tough out in the playoffs, but first it has to get there.

“Staying healthy (is important), obviously. We’re only playing six and seven people most of the time,” Veneziano said. “We’ve got to find one person to improve, two people to improve, to see if we can make our whole team better.”

 

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At surface level, it looks like Hall-Dale is in the middle of a season to forget. But despite the Bulldogs’ 3-6 record, there’s an upbeat tone when coach Jarod Richmond talks about his team.

After all, Hall-Dale’s made strides since the low point of the season, a 73-21 loss to Winthrop at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec. 27. The record hasn’t shown it so much, as the Bulldogs are 1-2 since that game, but they competed with winning teams in Carrabec and Madison, and have showed the kind of play that many following the Class C scene were expecting coming into the season.

“(The Winthrop loss) sucked in the moment, but it was a really good gut check for this group,” Richmond said. We made some adjustments to our process, and we’ve seen some really good results. … The laundry list is still long, but we’ve made some progress on those deficiencies.”

Hall-Dale brought back a core led by Iris Ireland and KK Wills that guided the Bulldogs to a 12-6 regular season, but it’s been tougher going this winter.

“I think we had to remind ourselves to stay hungry and stay humble,” Richmond said. “I think we all felt that we were going to kind of pick up from where we were last year.”

Richmond has seen an improved mentality take hold in recent games.

“We’ve really re-invested ourselves and re-applied ourselves to be defense-first,” he said. “Just getting back to being more defensive-oriented, and our offense would take care of itself. And it has. … We’re playing some really tough teams, and we’re starting to see some growth.”

 

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There are only five teams in the state with undefeated records, and Rangeley is one of them. The Lakers are 11-0 under interim coach Brittany DiPompo, joining Greely (10-0) in A South, Stearns (11-0) and Calais (10-0) in C North, and Southern Aroostook (9-0) in D North.

Oddly enough, however, if the season ended today, Rangeley would be a second seed in the D South tournament, behind 9-1 Greenville. The Lakers play Kents Hill on Tuesday and then Valley on Friday.

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