NEWPORT — As a new basketball season dawns in central Maine, the onus isn’t what will be coming to gyms in the area — it’s on what won’t be.

No, there’s no lack of excitement or anticipation as the first tryouts and practices begin. Yet the elephant in the room is obvious: Two players who electrified crowds across the state en route to delivering state championships for their respective teams will no longer be around to do so this winter.

Boys Gatorade Player of the Year Cooper Flagg, of course, is off at Montverde Academy in Florida after captivating the state with a season unlike any other at Nokomis. Jaycie Christopher, the Girls Gatorade Player of the year, is still in Maine, starting for the University of Maine women’s team after graduating from Skowhegan.

“It’s going to be a different atmosphere in our gym, I think,” said Skowhegan head coach Mike LeBlanc. “We’re going to have to really get back to work, start doing things and see what kind of way we can get going.”

The contrasting atmospheres will certainly be palpable for the Skowhegan girls and Nokomis boys, who are no longer the clear favorites with their once-in-a-generation superstars gone. Yet the remaining players must move on, a process that began in earnest in the offseason and continues now that a new winter season has arrived.

In boys basketball, Flagg’s dominance set in motion something rarely (if ever) seen before in the state. With high-flying dunks, emphatic blocks and a breathtaking skill set that had to be seen to be believed, the freshman phenom drew packed crowds from local gyms to the state’s biggest arenas throughout the season.


With Cooper Flagg and his talented twin brother, Ace, now in Florida, there’s a different buzz around a Nokomis team that no longer has the main catalysts of the program’s first-ever Gold Ball. But even if the vibe is different in Newport this year, the Warriors still believe their core group of players can give opposing teams fits.

Nokomis senior Madden White dunks the ball during practice Monday in Newport. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“We’ve got a lot of hustle guys and a lot of guys who have put a lot of effort in for us,” said senior Madden White. “We had a lot of talent that wasn’t shown last year because we had the twins, obviously, and I think those kids are going to shock some people. I think people are underestimating us.”

White, who averaged 10.3 points per game in the regular season last year, stepped up for Nokomis in the postseason, as he averaged 13.5 over the team’s four tournament games. That total included a team-high 26 points in the Warriors’ Class A North quarterfinal victory over Messalonskee.

Additionally, the Warriors return four players who earned significant time on last year’s team in Grady Hartsgrove, Dawson Townsend, Alex Grant and Connor Sides. Sides and Grant were reliable 3-point shooters, and Townsend and Hartsgrove were strong options off the bench. Nokomis beat Falmouth 43-27 to win the Class A title last season.

While the loss of the Flagg twins hurts, the Warriors won’t face much pressure this winter. Whereas Nokomis had to live up to lofty expectations last year, it no longer has to deal with the added pressure that came with all the hype.

“I think that takes a lot of the expectations off our shoulders because we’re not expected to be as good,” Hartsgrove said. “We can go out and play loose, play with energy and play hard. … If we do that and play together, I think everyone will settle in and fall into their spots.”


Skowhegan girls basketball coach Mike LeBlanc runs talks to players during practice Monday in Skowhegan. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

A determining factor for the Warriors’ success this year, White said, will be accounting for the loss of rebounding. Nokomis was heavily reliant on the Flaggs on the boards last year, and without their size to buoy the Warriors in the paint, the team’s returnees must fill the void.

“Last year, we didn’t really have to worry about rebounding because we had Cooper, so this year, we’re going to have to really focus on boxing out,” White said. “That’s going to be the main thing for us. … We’re going to have to play the underdog role, which is different from last year, but I think we’re ready to do that.”

Christopher was a sensation of her own at Skowhegan, which she led to its first Gold Ball in program history last winter. The River Hawks defeated Greely 60-46 in the Class A final. As a senior, she averaged 22.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 3.4 steals per game, leading the River Hawks to a 22-0 campaign in which their closest victory came by 12 points.

It was a run in which Christopher garnered just about every accolade there was to be won. In addition to her Gatorade Player of the Year win and state title, Christopher was also Miss Maine Basketball as the top senior player in the state. She would be named the Varsity Maine Girls Athlete of the Year in July for her success on the basketball court and softball field.

“She was basically everything for us,” LeBlanc said. “She was our team leader on the floor and in basically every category. Her leadership ability to get the other kids around her to believe in themselves was huge. It’s big shoes to fill for us, there’s no question.”

Skowhegan basketball player Aryana Lewis passes the ball during practice Monday in Skowhegan. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Making things even more difficult for Skowhegan this year will be the absence of Callaway LePage, who had been set to anchor the post for the River Hawks in the 6-foot-1 Christopher’s absence. The senior will miss the 2022-23 season following an injury she suffered during field hockey.

LeBlanc, then, knows this campaign is about to look much different. With both of the top post players from last year missing, Skowhegan will look to junior sisters Annabelle and Maddy Morris and seniors Aryana Lewis and Jayla Gentry as they look to establish a new team identity this winter.

“We know that identity is going to be totally different than it was last year,” LeBlanc said. “We had so many quick-hitters and one-set plays last year, and this year is going to be about relying on our defense and seeing what we can get in the fast-break and in transition.”

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