Richmond’s Kenny Bing, right, and North Yarmouth Academy’s Bryce Poulin struggle for a rebound during a game Wednesday in Richmond. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

RICHMOND — Richmond boys basketball coach Phil Houdlette acknowledges it. His team is inexperienced. It makes mistakes. It throws the ball away sometimes. It makes slip-ups on defense.

That was the case last year, too. But last year, those mistakes sank the Bobcats. This year, they’ve looked at them as the learning experiences they are.

“I think we’ve done a nice job of growing and not letting the growing pains stay on our mind as long,” Houdlette said. “We want to learn from them, but you can’t dwell on them.”

Richmond hasn’t, and it’s helped translate to a better showing in the Class C standings. After going 5-13 and missing the playoffs, the Bobcats were 6-6 entering a Wednesday night matchup with North Yarmouth Academy. If the season ended before the game, Richmond would be in, as the 10th team in the C South field.

Richmond’s Lucas Cote dribbles past North Yarmouth Academy’s Chris Hamblett during a game Wednesday in Richmond. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

A big reason for the uptick has been a change in scheduling. Last year, the Bobcats were in the Mountain Valley Conference, which, for an already small team trying to find a whole new offensive core following the graduations of Zach Small and Matt Rines, was just too tall a task.

“We could handle the ball (before). If you can’t handle the ball and you play in the Mountain Valley Conference, you’re going to get beat,” Houdlette said. “No question about it.”

This year, Richmond has gotten the best of both worlds: A largely East/West Conference schedule, but with some tough tests from down south in Traip Academy, Old Orchard Beach and North Yarmouth Academy.

“It’s been a good mix because it gives you a chance to grow a little bit, and not just be punished night after night after night,” Houdlette said. “And I think that’s what it was.”

Houdlette said the team has been energized by having a better chance to compete and win on a nightly basis.

“It’s a long season when you’re .500,” he said. “Let alone when you’re sub-.500.”

Players on the team acknowledged that the group chemistry has been far better from the start of the season than it was last year.

“We’re not really disagreeing as much as we did last year. Last year, we weren’t together as a team,” junior center Calob Densmore said. “We had Zach, we had Matt, we had Nate (Kendrick) my freshman year. Last year, it was a big difference, a big change for us. It was hard filling the roles.”

This year, the Bobcats have found a rhythm. Densmore returned to his role as a nightly double-double candidate, senior guard Dakotah Gilpatric has been a reliable scorer, and senior forward Kenny Bing, who had 35 points, 14 rebounds and seven steals in an 80-63 win over St. Dominic, has stepped up into becoming on any given night the team’s leader in points, rebounds and steals.

“I definitely put in a lot of work for myself during the offseason, but I also feel like it’s finding my role on the team,” Bing said. “I feel like I’m a very competitive person, and no matter what, I want to win. So I’m going to go out and do whatever it takes to win.”

“He’s just an incredibly hard worker,” Houdlette said. “(With) his engine, I never have to worry about taking him out unless it’s foul trouble. … He’s in good shape, he pushes himself all the time, and he’s a relentless rebounder.”

It adds up to a group that, from the beginning of the year, has felt better about its competitive chances.

“I feel like, last year, it was in sparks, but I don’t feel like it was as set as it is this year,” Bing said. “Even our first game, when we played Old Orchard Beach (in a 77-45 loss), we got punched in the mouth, but we came out in the second half, we competed. We outscored OOB in the second two quarters.”

Richmond’s Max Viselli, right, defends North Yarmouth Academy’s Chris Hamblett during a game Wednesday in Richmond. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Houdlette emphasized growth, and it seems the Bobcats have improved as the season’s gone on. Richmond lost to Traip 57-44 on Dec. 23, then beat the Rangers 53-29 on Jan. 9. The Bobcats beat Valley 45-44 at home on Dec. 20, then won the rematch 54-39 in Bingham on Jan. 14.

Asked what the team was doing better, Gilpatric had a list ready.

“Ball-handling, having Calob and Kenny down on the blocks, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds,” he said, “and just running at our pace and making the other team chase us. We don’t want to be chasing them.”

Two weeks remain in the regular season. That means two more weeks for Richmond of not just trying to clinch a playoff spot, but making itself as difficult an out as possible.

That means a lot of mistakes along the way. It’s hard to get better without them. But Houdlette knows his team has the right mentality this time.

“I think we’re trying to be cohesive,” he said. “You can’t dwell on mistakes. If you put yourself out there, you’re going to fail. It’s what you do after you fail. And I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of trying to pick ourselves up.”

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