There have been some notable surprises in the Eastern Maine Class C schoolgirl basketball ranks so far this season with Houlton sitting atop the Heal point standings with a 5-0 record and Madawaska making a statement with an early-season victory over defending state champion Calais.
And the Penquis girls are off to a strong start under first-year head coach Jason Snyder. The Patriots from Milo have won four of their first five games, including a 59-38 win over Stearns of Millinocket in their last game before the new year.
Even though Penquis’ early-season surge might be somewhat surprising to some basketball pundits around the state, Snyder thought otherwise before the season started.
“I think that we’re a top team (right now),” said Snyder, who played his high school basketball at Narraguagus High in Harrington.
The Patriots are playing with heavy hearts this season after the death of former teammate Laura Gray last January.
Gray, a freshman who saw time on both the junior varsity and varsity squads, died of a staph infection.
Penquis is planning to commemorate Gray prior to Wednesday’s home showdown against undefeated Central of Corinth.
Snyder expects his team to come out and play with a ton of emotion with Gray on their minds.
“I’m sure come Wednesday night they’re going to play even harder for (her),” he said. “(They’re) looking to just honor the game in her memory.”
Penquis and Central match up evenly.
“From what I’m hearing we play the same style of basketball as far as defenses go,” Snyder said. “Offensively, we have some weapons when they’re on and I know Central’s the same way.”
Kristyn Chapman has been one of the offensive catalysts for Penquis. She’s averaging 18.6 points per game while Sadie Zambrano, Hannah Bess and Lexi Larson have supplied depth, with all of those players cracking double figures at least once this season.
Chapman’s strong start includes a 32-point performance against Dexter.
Depth isn’t something the Patriots have been blessed with the last few years, even when they made their tournament appearance two years ago thanks to the play of 2009 BDN All-Maine third-teamer Erica Lyford.
“I go at least seven to eight, sometimes 9-10 deep during the games,” Snyder said.
Carolyn Bess, Hannah’s sister, has been Penquis’ top threat in the post at 5-foot-11 while freshman Jessica Snyder, who is 5-7, is tough on the glass, Snyder added.
Penquis has been on a roll offensively, averaging 53 points per contest. Snyder has instilled the run-and-gun, Washington County-style of basketball he played at Narraguagus.
“Our fast break has got us 20 to 30 points a game at least,” he said. “We’ve really been pushing the ball and it’s been our strong point all season long, and I wasn’t ready to slow them up.”
As strongly as the Patriots have started the season, their schedule doesn’t get easy over the next few weeks. Penquis still has to face Central of Corinth, Foxcroft Academy and Orono twice while the Pats have one more matchup remaining with Dexter, a 57-53 winner in their first matchup.
Snyder’s big goal when he arrived at Milo this winter was to get the Patriots back to the Bangor Auditorium come February. A win over Central, which is second in the Heal points, could go a long way in making those dreams a reality.
“I told them if they beat Central, then they’re looking at going to the tournament,” Snyder said.
And, as the Calais girls proved last year in winning a state championship out of the No. 6 seed, it’s all about getting hot at the right time.
“Anyone can win on any given night,” said Snyder, who never had the opportunity to play in the tournament at Narraguagus.
“The players really want to go to Bangor, that’s everyone’s goal. You get there, anything can happen,” he said.