The Penobscot Valley of Howland boys basketball team had a breakthrough season last winter, earning the program’s first tournament trip to the Bangor Auditorium in 23 years.
Now one of the state’s smallest Class C schools — with an enrollment of 185 as of April 1 — hopes to build on that success.
“We’re starting to play with a little more confidence, the basketball IQ is a little higher, and we’re starting to learn how to win,” said Howlers coach Jamie Russell. “That’s the biggest thing. Our starting five is decent, a pretty good team.”
Penobscot Valley will be led by 6-foot-7 senior center Joey McCloskey, one of four returning starters from last year’s 12-8 team that edged George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill in the preliminary round before falling to eventual state champion Washington Academy of East Machias in the quarterfinals.
“He’s got really good ball skills, he’s an excellent shooter,” said Penquis of Milo coach Tony Hamlin of McCloskey. “He’s obviously got size, and he can play away from the basket.”
Senior guards Jacob Jones, Ryan Scopino and David Hallett also return, and the Howlers have gained another scorer and rebounder in senior forward Eddie Cobb, a transfer from Penquis.
“Jones’ outside game is important for us, and he’s able to get to the basket better this year,” said Russell. “And the addition of Cobb has really taken the pressure off Joe. Eddie’s a great rebounder, he can get to the basket and finish and he can shoot from the outside.”
One team that can match McCloskey’s height is Lee Academy, which is led by four-year varsity guard A.J. Harris, but also hopes to benefit from two sophomore newcomers, 6-7 Daniel He from China and 6-4 point guard Arturas Makovskis from Lithuania. John Chase, a 6-3 senior forward, and 6-2 senior guard Bryan James join Harris as captains for Pandas coach Randy Harris.
Another tall team is Madawaska, particularly with 6-3 senior forward Deejay Gendreau and 6-3 junior Matt Deschenes, and while Penquis lacks height it boasts talented perimeter players in senior Bryan Russell and freshman Trevor Lyford as well as an lightning-quick senior forward Jarell Arefein.
And while Hamlin sees Penobscot Valley and Lee as the leaders in Eastern C, he also considers his team capable of making a late-season run.
“We’ve got some pretty skilled players who can shoot and our big kids maybe will come along and give us something inside,” he said. “On any given night, particularly in a tournament when you’re going on back-to-back nights Friday and Saturday, depth is a factor and we’ve got 12 kids that I go with every game.”
Stearns of Millinocket, coming off an Eastern Maine championship season in football, also is expected to contend, though the Minutemen must replace graduated point guard Garen Manzo, now at Thomas College. Seniors Brandon McLaughlin and Billy Eurich will lead the senior-laden club.
Calais, which narrowly lost to Washington Academy in the EM final after winning the previous four regional titles and three state crowns between 2006 and 2009, is regrouping after All-Maine forward Cam Shorey transferred to Phillips Exeter (N.H.) Academy and senior guard Ryan Cavanaugh was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Junior point guard Jeff Jones and junior forward Joe Mitchell figure to play key roles for the Blue Devils.
“We’re just not seasoned right now,” said Calais coach Ed Leeman. “We’ve got four, five, six, seven juniors on the team, and we’ll see if some of those kids will be able to step up.”
Then there are the defending champions from Washington Academy, also rebuilding after losing its entire starting lineup from last winter’s team. Returning players include senior guard Romayn Richards, junior forwards Nick Pineo and Jordan Porter and sophomore forward Jacob Schoppee, while Drew Sansing also could be an impact player for coach Steve Pineo’s Raiders.