Messalonskee players and fans react after Merrick Smith, center, hit a game-winning shot as time expired in a Class A North quarterfinal boys basketball game against Nokomis last season at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

From chaos to glory, the 2020s have been nothing short of enthralling in Maine boys high school basketball. Much (maybe even most?) of that action has been found right here in central Maine.

Three state champions and six regional champs, not to mention a couple more that could have been had a standard season been held in 2020-21; two Maine Gatorade Players of the Year; the Augusta Civic Center packed to the brim for tournaments like no other.

“I think the top-end talent in Maine high school basketball is as good as it’s ever been, and there’s a lot of it here,” said Waterville head coach Jared Browne. “There’s a lot of changes and some ups and downs, but the talent and the excitement, you see it everywhere.”

It’s no different in 2023-24. There are some teams in new surroundings and some likely changing of the guard to be had, but the quality and enthusiasm across the region has remained constant with the first games a matter of days away.

A year ago, Brewer tore through the Class A North region, beating back challenges from Skowhegan, Cony, Mt. Blue and Nokomis. Messalonskee also made some noise in that region late as it overcame a 1-8 start to finish 8-12, earning a stunning semifinal victory over Nokomis in the process.

This year, the Eagles have gone from the team capable of making noise to one of the outright favorites in A North. Leading the way for Messalonskee is Merrick Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward who won that semifinal game against Nokomis with a buzzer-beater and drove opposing defenses nuts with his offensive skill set.


“I’ve been working on extending my range a little bit, working on my passing ability and working on my one-on-one,” Smith said. “In the past, I’ve relied too much on my teammates, and I feel like if I’m going to become the best player I can be, I have to take that next step and be more reliant on myself. I’m ready for that.”

Nokomis’ Connor Sides (15) drives the lane against Erskine during a boys basketball game last season in the Capitol City Hoop Classic at the Augusta Civic Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Surrounding Smith, who averaged 13.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, is an elite group of guards. Sam Dube and Jacob Moody will be the top shooters for Messalonskee this year, and Drake Brunelle, who averaged 3.5 assists and 2.4 steals, is one of the area’s top all-around playmakers.

“We’re still figuring out our identity and how we’re going to play, but the No. 1 thing these guys have bought into is that we’re a defensive team first,” said first-year Messalonskee head coach Sam Smith, previously the coach at Waterville. “Offense will kind of take care of itself, so we can’t worry about that; we have to make defense a priority.”

One of Messalonskee’s top competitors will be Cony, which returns two elite shooters in Parker Sergent (20.1 points per game, 39.3 percent from 3) and Alex Fournier (41.9 percent from 3, third among all Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference players). The Rams went 12-8 with a semifinal appearance last year.

Mt. Blue has lost significant production but returns an electrifying player in Evans Sterling (17.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.0 steals per game). Lawrence, Skowhegan and Nokomis will be led by Dane Zawistowski, Ryan Donoghue and Alex Grant and Connor Sides, respectively.

One team that could be set to improve from last year is Gardiner, which went just 3-15 a year ago. The Tigers have lost a strong 3-point shooter in Colby Moody but have brought back Cody Dingwell at guard and Brady Atwater and Zach Kristan at forward, three notable contributors from last season.


The team that might be the favorite to win the region, though, is a non-central Maine one: Hampden Academy. Back in Class A after two seasons in the AA ranks, the Broncos will have two of the best players in the league in Zach McLaughlin (23.1 points per game) and J.J. Wolfington (14.4 points, 8.2 rebounds).

“Hampden and Messalonskee, those are the two (favorites) right now,” said Lawrence head coach Jason Pellerin. “There are some teams that can step up and compete with them, certainly, but those two have a lot back, and when you take a look at who’s kind of at the top as things get started, I’d have to go with them.”

Waterville’s Asher Grazulis (21) and Maranacook’s Jacob McLaughlin (13) battle for the ball in the first half during a boys basketball game last season in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

In Class B, Maranacook has gone from South to North while also departing the KVAC for the Mountain Valley Conference. Although the Black Bears must replace Brayden St. Pierre (18.5 points per game), they do return Keagan McClure (16.2 points, 7.6 assists) and Jake McLaughlin (13.1 points).

One of Maranacook’s former KVAC B partners, Winslow, has a new look to it after going 17-2 a year ago. Gone are KVAC B Player of the Year Jason Reynolds, who led the league in points (28.8) and rebounds (15.5) per game, and as Andrew Poulin, who averaged 21.0 points per game.

Those two players’ younger siblings, Matt Reynolds and Brady Poulin, will now replace their older brothers in the Black Raiders’ starting five. Also starting for Winslow will be guards Braden Rodrigue (4.3 assists per game) and Tyler Nadeau and forward Matt Quirion (6.1 rebounds per game).

“Our offensive possessions are definitely going to look a lot different, so we’ll have to manage that,” said Winslow head coach Ken Lindlof. “Braden is going to have a bigger expectation on him to score the basketball, but we have some guys that can shoot around him, too. I think we’ll be eight or nine deep.”


Winslow, Maranacook, Maine Central Institute and Erskine Academy (down from Class A) will face fierce challenges come tournament time from Ellsworth and Orono. The Eagles and Red Riots, who have Mr. Maine Basketball contenders in Chance Mercier and Pierce Walston, respectively, have met in the regional final two straight years.

No longer in Class B North is Mount View, which has made the move down to C North after two seasons. The Mustangs have the pieces to turn some heads in that region this year in seniors Noah Hurd (17.8 points per game, 55 3-pointers made) and Wyatt Evensen (12.7 points, 4.6 assists, 4.7 steals).

One of the most entertaining regions year in and year out is C South, and it should be again this winter. Although there are a number of potential contenders in C South this year, Mt. Abram, Monmouth Academy and Dirigo look to be at the top of that heap again after strong campaigns a year ago.

Fresh off a 17-4 season, Mt. Abram brings one of the region’s best players in Payton Mitchell (17.2 points, 7,1 rebounds, 5.1 assists per game) as well as fellow guards Cam Frost-Grey and Bryce Wilcox and forward Logan Dube. Monmouth, also 17-4 a year ago, returns an elite scorer in Sammy Calder (17.1 points per game).

Mt. Abram’s Payton Mitchell, right, drives past Old Orchard Beach defender Shilo Thao during a Class C South boys basketball quarterfinal game last season at the Augusta Civic Center. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“That Mt. Abram group is hungry, and every year, they’ve gotten better. I’m sure they feel like this year is their year, so they’re on top of that pedestal right now,” said Winthrop head coach Todd MacArthur. “Monmouth has arguably the best player in the conference (in Calder), so they’re going to be very dangerous, too.”

After years as one of the top teams in C South and the MVC as a whole, MacArthur’s Winthrop team took a step back last year as it went 8-10 and missed the playoffs. The Ramblers are a young team this year with no seniors, but they do have an elite shooter in Braden Branagan and a potent big man in Chan Ring.


“I like this team a lot,” MacArthur said. “With no seniors, you have to have that growth mindset of, ‘What is the big picture?’ and for us, the big picture is that I like these kids; they’re very coachable, and they want to get better, and if you have kids like that that work hard, usually, you’re going find that they’ll meet their potential.”

In C South, Madison and Carrabec will look to address key losses from teams that had winning records a year ago, while Hall-Dale will look to make a tournament return after missing last year.

Browne’s Waterville team is also in C South, which has dropped down to the region after posting a four-season win percentage under the 25 percent mark. Browne, who previously coached the Winslow boys from 2011-17, has a young team that will be led by Chris Nawfel at guard and Garrett Gendreau on the wing.

Forest Hills sophomore guard Blaine Nadeau, left, and junior forward Cooper Daigle go for a rebound during the Class D South championship game last season at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We have one senior with a lot of experience, and the rest of the guys are either juniors with a little experience or a couple guys without much at all,” Browne said. “We’re putting them in roles they might not be used to, but they’ve adapted really well, and I’m proud of how they’ve developed the past few weeks.”

Then, there’s D South, where the scene looks much different than it did a year ago. With Mason Desjardins and Hiram Logston gone, Forest Hills, winner of four consecutive Southern Maine championships, will not be the same overwhelming favorite to breeze through the region it’s been recently.

Nevertheless, it’s Forest Hills, and it would be foolish to think the Tigers will fall out of the championship picture. Anthony Amero’s team has a walking double-double at forward in Cooper Daigle, a reliable guard in Braidan Welch and another Desjardins, Jaxson, who’s expected to figure into the rotation even as an eighth-grader.

“It’s a different conversation because we don’t have that pressure of, ‘OK, if you don’t go to states, it’s a bad season,’” Amero said. “We’re undersized is our biggest thing — we average just under 6 feet tall — but we had a team back in 2009 that was undersized and nobody picked to do much that ended up making it to the regional championship. This team reminds me a lot of that team.”

Valley might be the favorite in D South this year with elite sophomores Harry Louis and Fisher Tewksbury back from a regional runner-up team. Amero also likes the look of a Temple Academy unit that brings back its entire starting five and also expects challenges from a C South dropdown, St. Dominic Academy.

“Valley’s got two really good guards and a good post player (Jared Ricker), and they’re probably the best-rounded team going into the season,” Amero said. “St. Dom’s, that’s a team to contend with. We’ve played them in the summer the past few years, and they’re big and athletic and can probably go eight deep.”

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