Maranacook’s Tim Worster, left, and Erskine’s Nick Barber battle for a rebound during a Jan. 12 game in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

There was a lot of hype surrounding the Maranacook boys basketball team entering this season, with four starters returning from a team that took the Class B state championship game to overtime. Expectations for the Black Bears were high.

So far, they’re living up to them — if not exceeding them.

Maranacook is off to a 5-0 start, but more impressive than the record is how the Black Bears have assembled it. They’ve won all five games by at least 39 points. They won one by 64. They’re averaging 88.2 points per game, and have topped 80 in four of the five contests.

It’s to the point that even coach Travis Magnusson, who knew better than anyone the team he had on his hands coming in, is impressed.

“I knew we were going to be really, really good,” he said. “We have six seniors on the team, and all six have taken a huge jump. … We’re playing how I kind of thought, but I guess when you look at scores, that jumps out at you. I didn’t think we’d be beating teams by an average of 45 points after five games.”

While some teams have treated the season, which won’t have the standard Maine Principals’ Association state tournaments, as a chance to play more of the roster and develop young players, the Black Bears have approached this season the way they would any other.

“We said we were going to keep this as close to a normal season as we can,” Magnusson said. “We practice really hard. We’ve gotten better just from the first day. We’re not coming in and just playing games to have fun. … We’re doing a lot of skills, a lot of drills. I think, mentally, our guys are in a position where when it’s game time, they’re ready to play.”

The team, which has been led on the scoresheet by Cash McClure and Casey Cormier but also seen players like Tyler Hreben and Chris Reid step into bigger roles, embraced that intensity from the start. Even without the normal prize of a state championship, the Black Bears have been driven to turn as many heads as possible.

“They’re very focused. They want to work hard, there are kids on the team who want to play at the next level,” Magnusson said. “And they want to be the best team in the state. We’re motivated for a number of different reasons, still, right now.”

 

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Watervillel’s Kali Thompson draws the foul from Presque Isle High School’s Annalise Jandreau (20) in the first half in the Class B North semifinals game last season at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Maddie Martin, Sadie Garling and Jayda Murray graduated after last season, and with them went much of Waterville’s scoring punch. Someone else was going to need to step into the spotlight.

So far, Kali Thompson has been up for the challenge.

Thompson, a senior forward and Waterville’s first player of the bench last winter, has been right at home in a starring role, topping 15 points and 16 rebounds in each game so far for the 3-2 Purple Panthers.

“It’s not surprising, given how hard she’s worked at it,” Waterville coach Rob Rodrigue said. “It was pretty predictable when I saw her this summer and in the winter season in practice, that she was going to be one of the top players around.”

The defense and rebounding isn’t new; Thompson consistently sparked the Panthers the past two years with her tenacity on the floor and aggressiveness on the boards. The growth has come on offense, where after years of scoring in transition and with putbacks, she’s being asked to create her shots.

“Shooting was my biggest thing I worked on this summer and that I wanted to be able to do,” she said. “I literally would never take a jump shot. Last year, if you saw me play, you would never see me shoot.”

Knowing this, Rodrigue had a chat with her before the season began.

“‘Be aggressive,'” he said. “That’s been the message for her since Day 1.”

So far, it’s paying off.

“This season, I’ve felt more confident with the way I’ve played,” she said. “Just going out there, I don’t feel as scared to take a shot or mess up.”

 

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Saint Dominic Academy’s Alex Willings blasts through Richmond defenders Cole Alexander and Calob Densmore during Saturday afternoon’s game in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Jason Cassidy is back coaching after two years away from the varsity game.

It didn’t take long for him to miss it.

“I think I needed that first year,” said Cassidy, who’s coaching at Richmond following 11 years at Gardiner. “The second year, I started to get an itch a little bit.”

Cassidy, who lives in Richmond and teaches at Gardiner Regional Middle School, left the Tigers because he wanted to spend more time with his family. But with son Wyatt a freshman with the Bobcats and daughter Maddie in fifth grade in the Richmond district, Cassidy is finding it easier to coach and find time to be with his wife and children.

“It was very hard, me being predominantly doing everything at Gardiner and them doing everything at Richmond. We didn’t get to see enough of each other,” he said. “The timing was right. It just worked out really nice for all of us.”

Cassidy has been pleased with the work ethic of his Richmond team, which  led by Calob Densmore, Cole Alexander and Andrew Vachon has split its first two games.

“The biggest, ultimate goal for me is to build the numbers back up and the interest back up,” he said. “We want to give them opportunities to fall in love with the game like we did.”

 

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Erskine’s MacKenzie Roderick is guarded by Messalonskee’s Elise McDonald during a game Monday in South China. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

If this season has been any indication, the future is bright for the Messalonskee girls.

The 2-0 Eagles have gotten some big contributions from freshmen so far, with Ashley Mullen, Brennan Doran and Elise McDonald turning heads in their varsity debuts. Mullen was the leading scorer in both games with 10 and 11 points in wins over Winslow and Erskine, respectively, while Doran had nine points against Winslow and then six and 10 rebounds against Erskine.

The pandemic-affected season has been a perfect opportunity for coaches to give young players a bigger chance than they would normally get, but Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby said his freshmen would likely be getting these minutes in a typical year.

“I think what they’re showing me, they would have shown me regardless,” he said. “They’d probably force me into playing them more anyway. … They’re getting kind of a trial by fire, and they’re earning everything they get.”

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