Skowhegan junior Jaycie Christopher, middle, draws four Messalonskee defenders during a Feb. 23, 2021 game in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Class A North has seen high-end basketball talent come through in recent years, with Lawrence’s Nia Irving and Messalonskee’s Gabrielle Wener going on to play Division I college basketball.

This season, however, the talent wave is particularly pronounced. In Skowhegan senior and Boston University commit Jaycie Christopher, Gardiner junior Lizzy Gruber and Cony transfer and Wofford commit Indiya Clarke, the region is full of high-end skill.

“We had a KVAC meeting and we talked about how this is probably the most talent we’ve had, throughout the whole conference,” Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc said.

Because of that, Class A North and the KVAC will have some marquee team and individual matchups as the season goes along.

“A North is pretty good this year,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “There’s a lot of really good teams. Lawrence’s guards are so skilled, Cony had a great offseason. … Skowhegan has Jaycie. Our league, I just feel like, is up, and nothing will be easy. There’s none of those ‘circle the wins’ on the calendar.”

Few teams, though, are in a better spot than the Tigers are. Gruber, a dominant center, leads the way, but Gardiner has a host of returning contributors led by Megan Gallagher, Savannah Brown and McKenna Johnson. The Tigers made the Class A North final in 2020, won the Central Maine Tournament last year, and are as deep and talented as they’ve ever been.

Gardiner’s Lizzy Gruber, left, jumps to try and block a shot by Brunswick’s Morgan Foster during a Dec. 1 scrimmage at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We’re going to have a target on our back,” Gray said. “That’s the approach we’re taking. Every night, we’re going to get everyone’s best shot. … No one’s going to take us lightly. There have been seasons in the past when you could kind of sneak in and get a win. We’re not going to steal any wins.”

Skowhegan is young, with 10 of 14 players being freshmen or sophomores, but with Christopher can never be counted out. The key for the River Hawks is finding the depth that recently has eluded them.

“Most of the teams are going to gear up to stop Jaycie. … This is all about her supporting cast,” said LeBlanc, referring to a group that includes Callaway LePage, Aryana Lewis and Annabelle and Maddy Morris. “If we’re able to shoot the ball with any consistency, that’ll help her. If not, we’re going to be in the same boat we have been for the last two years.”

Lawrence features a dynamic player in Hope Bouchard and is coming off of a strong season. Nokomis, Messalonskee and Erskine, with new coach Jamie Soule, should be in the mix as well. Climbing up the ranks is Cony, which graduated top players Julia Reny and Kiara Henry but gets a big addition in Clarke, who as a junior at Colony High School in Palmer, Alaska was a first-team player in the state’s biggest class.

Lawrence’s Hope Bouchard follows through on a shot during the Class A/B central Maine tournament championship game last season in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“They were a totally different-looking team this summer,” Gray said. “You put (Clarke) inside, and then all of a sudden it lets those other guards just kind of get to their spots and get those shots up.”

In B North, a Waterville team that went to the regional final the last two years it was contested will try to remain a team to beat under new coach Joy Charles. The Purple Panthers will be led by point guard Keira Gilman and forward Gabby Maines, and will play up-tempo despite having only 10 girls on the roster.

“I have high expectations of the team in general,” Charles said. “I don’t really like individual accolades, necessarily, because I set the bar pretty high for each and every one of them.”

In B South, Maranacook will try to recover after losing six seniors. Grace Dwyer and Ella Schmidt will lead the way for a Black Bears team that coach Karen Magnusson still feels will be among the region’s and KVAC B’s best.

“Do I think we could be good? Absolutely. I think we’re very special,” she said. “For us, it starts defensively. We’re going to have to be able to rebound the basketball and be able to play our defense in the half court, full court, whatever we need to do.”

Maranacook girls basketball coach Karen Magnusson watches the action during a Nov. 23 practice in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In Class C, Hall-Dale will return one of the Mountain Valley Conference’s most experience-laden teams, with KK Wills, Iris Ireland, Hayden Madore, Averi Baker and Amanda Trepanier back after playing significant roles for the team that won the Class C/D championship in the Central Maine Tournament.

“I have very high expectations and hopes for the season. … With this group of girls, I could probably throw out five, maybe even six names on any given night that could be the leader, whether it be in points or assists or rebounds,” said new coach O.J. Jaramillo, who had 25 players turn out for the season. “The depth on this team. … If you try to take away one, maybe two kids, we can throw three or four other different options at you. I find the matchups for some of our competitors, they’re really going to struggle.”

Spruce Mountain and Carrabec, which returns its scoring punch in Cheyenne Cahill, Courtney Rollins and Julia Baker, will be formidable teams to watch in the MVC race as well. Madison, led by senior Brooke McKenney, always emerges as a contender as the season progresses, and Oak Hill and Kents Hill should be tough matchups.

Winthrop, the last team to win the Class C South championship, has a small team with only 10 players but a good group of athletes led by Maddie Perkins, a standout last season, and Lydia Rice.

“I’m very, very excited to have these ladies run our defensive system and play 84 feet,” said John Baehr, the Ramblers’ new coach. “We’re going to go to the grind, we’re going to get better at our defensive system and hopefully compete in February for a Gold Ball.”

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