Skowhegan girls basketball coach Mike LeBlanc runs talks to players during a Nov. 21 practice in Skowhegan. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

As a new high school basketball begins, several central Maine teams open with lofty expectations.

None more so than defending Class A champ Skowhegan and reigning Class C champ Hall-Dale.

For Skowhegan, star guard Jaycie Christopher has graduated and now plays for the University of Maine at Orono. Then, the River Hawks were dealt an unexpected blow in the fall when Callaway LePage, Skowhegan’s top forward, suffered a knee injury during field hockey season. LePage, a senior, will not play this season.

“We knew we were going to lose Jay, obviously, but we were really excited about Callaway coming back and what she can provide,” Skowhegan head coach Mike LeBlanc said. “Losing them both, especially knowing that Callaway could have come back, it’s a blow that hurts a lot. We just have to get back in the gym and get after it.”

Still, several starters return for Skowhegan, and the goal remains the same for LeBlanc: Get back to the Augusta Civic Center for the Class A North tournament.

“We always have a goal no matter who we have coming back of making it to Augusta, and that’ll be one of our goals again this year,” LeBlanc said. “On any given day, it can happen, but we’re going to have to play extremely well. We’ll have to figure out our identity, see what works for us and go from there.”


Several teams are ready to contend for the A North title, staring with Lawrence, which fell to Skowhegan in the regional title last year. The Bulldogs return several starters, including senior guard and Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference first-team selection Hope Bouchard.

“We did our KVAC (preseason) picks, and I picked Lawrence,” LeBlanc said. “I know Gardiner is going to be great with their size and all that, but with Lawrence, all of their guards are back, their bigs played extremely well this summer, and they have a freshman coming in who can play. I think they’re going to be the top dogs, no pun intended, and they’re going to give Gardiner a pretty good battle.”

Indeed, Gardiner is ready to take the next step after reaching the A North semifinals last season. Head coach Mike Gray has been impressed with his team’s progress in the preseason. The Tigers bring back a veteran-heavy roster.

“I really like the way we’re playing,” Gray said. “The effort and attitude in practice has been great. The girls are focused like I’ve never seen them before, and they’re pretty determined. It’s a lot of seniors, a lot of kids who have been through this before. They’re just really excited about the opportunity that they know is in front of them.”

Lawrence junior guard Hope Bouchard tries to dribble past Gardiner guard Piper LaVoie during a Class A North girls basketball semifinal game last season at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The Tigers boast one of the biggest stars in the state in senior forward Lizzy Gruber, who has committed to Division I Saint Joseph’s University (Pennsylvania) next season.

“The great thing with Lizzy is that she continually works at the stuff she’s not great at,” Gray said. “She’s good at everything, but some kids just want to work on the things they’re good at. She continually tries to improve her ball-handling, or expand her range offensively, or make better decisions. She’s just constantly working and trying to get better. I think where that benefits our team is that she works so hard and just has this infectious enthusiasm that draws the rest of the team in and makes them want to work just as hard when they’re out there.”


Cony, under the leadership of new head coach John Dennett, should also be in the mix, with talented returners Sage Fortin and Abby Morrill leading the way.

After being one of the surprises of the B North tournament last season, Mount View may be ready to take a step forward this winter. The Mustangs graduated 1,000-point scorer Hannah Coolen, but return a large roster led by talented forward Kricket Thompson. In Class B South, Maranacook will also look to step forward after reaching the quarterfinal round last season.

Gardiner center Lizzy Gruber looks to take a shot as Skowhegan defender Callaway LePage closes in during a Class A North game last season in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Hall-Dale had a historic season a year ago, going 22-0 to win the program’s fourth Class C title, its first since 2011. The Bulldogs bring back plenty of firepower to make the same kind of run this winter.

“(The preseason) has been excellent,” Hall-Dale head coach O.J. Jaramillo said. “We’ve got some talented kids, I’m excited. We graduated six kids, four that were starters. But it’s crazy because I played so many kids last year. I’ve got a solid 10-11 kids that, in the (Mountain Valley Conference) I could start on any given night. It’s going to be a really good year.”

Leading the charge for the Bulldogs will be guard Hayden Madore, an MVC first-team selection last year and a three-year starter. Joining Madore in the backcourt will be Amanda Trepanier, an MVC second-team selection who had strong play during the Class C tournament.

“We’re super strong in transition, that’s our strength,” Jaramillo said. “I’d like to see us focus on a half-court offense that slow things down and kind of gets a little more methodical. Execute the details. That’s kind of where we’re at right now. I know we can get out and run. But when we go and compete with the better teams in the MVC, especially the south, we’ve got to be able to control the tempo.”

In Class D, Forest Hills made a surprising run to the conference title game before falling to Seacoast Christian. The Tigers will be among the early favorites to make a similar run in February.

Staff writer Mike Mandell contributed to this report.

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