Monmouth head coach Wade Morrill yells to his team during a boys basketball game against Mt. Abram last Tuesday in Monmouth. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

There’s a trend that’s been plenty evident throughout Maine high school basketball in the season’s early stages: Things have been sloppy.

From foul trouble to turnovers to offenses that aren’t quite in sync with their ball movement and passing, you can tell that things aren’t quite right just yet. It’s something that coaches, players and fans alike have all seemed to notice over the first week of play.

“I think this time of year you always see a lot of things you need to improve on,” Monmouth Academy head coach Wade Morrill said Tuesday after his team’s win over Mt. Abram. “It’s early in the season, there’s a lot of emotion, and you’re not quite jelling as well as you could be just yet.”

There are a lot of reasons as to why the play we’ve seen so far hasn’t exactly, as those involved attest, been of the highest quality. Yet with so much of the season to go — and with some of those factors set to fade as more basketball is played — there’s no reason for anybody to be hitting the panic button.

Some sluggishness at the start of any sports season is to be expected. New players are being introduced to lineups; players are growing accustomed to competing without ex-teammates who have graduated or transferred; coaches and athletes haven’t had much time to learn from their mistakes and correct them.

In that sense, teams not being at their best this time of the year is the rule rather than the exception. That’s something that’s stuck with me ever since my early days at my previous job with The Ellsworth American when I interviewed a coach whose team was in great shape to defend a state title.


“If we were as good as we were at the end of last year at the beginning of the year right now, I’d be pretty worried,” Dwayne Carter, head coach of the George Stevens Academy boys, told me on the eve of the 2016-17 season. “If you don’t struggle, you don’t learn to think and handle your challenges.”

Growing accustomed to the new season has been a challenge for teams every year since the first basketball hoops were put up in Maine high schools more than a century ago. Yet there are also some factors in play this year that haven’t necessarily existed in the past — at least not to this extent.

Although most of Maine got back some normalcy a season ago after the loneliness of 2020-21, the Maine high school basketball experience wasn’t universal. Players were masked in 99 percent of cases; quarantines and remote learning disrupted schedules; many games were played in front of reduced capacities or without away fans, and some teams were still without home crowds.

Although returning to a pre-2020 environment this year has been a welcome experience, then, it’s also been a learning curve. Gardiner girls head coach Mike Gray attributed some early struggles Saturday against Cony to the slightly different environment; the contrast was even greater for Morrill’s Monmouth boys, whose team’s 2021-22 season differed greatly from its counterparts.

“Last year, our kids played 95 percent of our home games with no fans while the other teams got to have them,” Morrill said. “These seniors have gone since their freshman year without really playing in front of live crowds, and I think that emotion plays into it; they get amped up, and it can be tough to manage that emotional rollercoaster.”

Monmouth Mustangs fan Mimi Chase, bottom left, leads the student section in a cheer during a basketball game against Mt. Abram last Tuesday in Monmouth. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Whereas there were constant reminders of COVID-19 a year ago, you’d hardly be aware the virus ever existed if you were to watch a game in a high school gym right now. Even if the measures of the past two years are gone, though, bugs going around at the moment are still having a major effect on play.


Between COVID, the flu and RSV, many (perhaps most?) teams have been without some of their key players in the early going. There are also, almost certainly, some players who have spent time on the floor despite not being fully recovered from the effects of those illnesses.

Illnesses aren’t even the only health-related troubles plaguing teams early in the season as teams are also battling injuries stemming from fall sports. The Skowhegan and Portland boys, for example, have players out or not at full strength following football. With those players missing or hampered, the River Hawks and Bulldogs have had early stumbles.

Those stumbles, though, will become fewer over the course of the season. Players will get into a rhythm as the games progress; the new environments will become familiar ones; injured and sick players will get healthy — and that will become evident in the product that’s put on the court.

After all, ironing things out and getting into a groove is what this time of year is meant to do. If the teams going through struggles and slow starts now are clicking in February, the challenges of December will be forgotten in the annals of history.

“You have to find a rhythm at some point, but you’re not going to get there right away,” Gray said. “You’re going to have to work for it and get better with each game.”

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