When John Bapst girls basketball coach Mike Webb handicapped what his Crusaders were capable of in November, he figured this would be a building year around freshman Abby Pyne, with the team having a shot at a tournament berth.
But Webb's expectations have been surpassed so far, as Bapst has won six of its first seven games with the first half of the season nearing its conclusion. The biggest of those triumphs was a 57-53 home win over archrival Presque Isle on Saturday.
And if that's not enough, the Wildcats came into that contest ranked second in the Heal points, and the Crusaders' win vaulted them up to third.
"We're a lot further ahead than I thought we would be," Webb said. "If you asked me if we'd be 6-1 and had beaten Presque Isle in the beginning of the year, I would've told you no."
That's why they play the games, though. The 6-foot Pyne is not only quickly establishing herself as one of the top players in Eastern Maine Class B, but more importantly, as one of John Bapst's leaders.
"We were kind of unknown at the beginning of the season, but now that we're into the season, winning games and we're 6-1, it's great," said Pyne, who recorded a double-double with 25 points and 13 rebounds on Saturday. She hit 10 of 11 free throws in the fourth quarter and 13 of 16 for the game.
"She has her freshman moments. She's young, (but) she's ice," Webb said.
Pyne also has some solid pieces to go around her, including Riley Boyle, Brittany Williams, Taylor Edgecomb, Emily Tilton and older sister Sarah Pyne.
Defense has been vital to John Bapst's recent run. The Crusaders have shut down Caribou and Mount Desert Island, which feature two top scoring threats in Jenna Selander and Megan Phelps, respectively, along with a strong Hermon club and a high-scoring Presque Isle team.
"We've held Hermon, we've held Caribou, we've held MDI and now we've held Presque Isle," Webb said. "We'll keep working on our defense and let everything else come."
The Crusaders also showed against Presque Isle that they cannot only be patient offensively, they have the athleticism to run with teams and can hit shots when they need to.
"We do have some confidence in our shooting. I think it's our kids getting comfortable with (Pyne) and she's getting comfortable with us," Webb said. "We're learning to distribute the ball to different players. You don't just have to stop Abby Pyne, you have to stop everybody."
Pyne, who was riddled by the flu last week, was fired up after beating the Wildcats, avenging a 45-40 defeat in Presque Isle in December.
"We were really frustrated up there losing in Presque Isle because we were winning at halftime," she said.
Tough stretches in KVAC
The Medomak Valley girls have been another great early-season story in Eastern Maine Class B. The Panthers of Waldoboro having won their first nine games behind an offensive attack that has averaged 56.3 points per game, led by senior center Erika Christensen.
Medomak is one of only four undefeated squads (Morse of Bath, Central of Corinth, Woodland) remaining in the Eastern Maine schoolgirl hoop ranks.
But the second half of the season will be a challenging one for coach Randy Hooper's club, as the Panthers are just getting into the meat of their schedule.
The challenging slate starts Jan. 18 with a trip to Newport to face defending regional champion Nokomis, which is followed by a home contest with undefeated Western Maine Class B foe Leavitt of Turner Center.
Nokomis has been hot as of late, too, reeling off six consecutive wins. Coach Kori Dionne's defense has surrendered a mere 27 points per game over those outings.
The Warriors don't have an easy week either, with a home contest against Leavitt Tuesday night and a road game Friday against Oak Hill of Sabattus, which features one of Class B's top players in Maggie Sabine.
The Raiders are third in Western B, behind Leavitt and York.
More key games this week
There are plenty of other noteworthy games to watch out for this week, including a couple of pivotal home contests for Hampden Academy and John Bapst.
Hampden, which is third in the Class A Heal points, takes on Messalonskee of Oakland Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
Coach Chad Bradbury's team bounced back from a road loss at Edward Little on Jan. 4 by cruising past Mt. Blue of Farmington 59-32.
Messalonskee will be looking to get back on track, coming off consecutive losses to Edward Little and Mount Ararat of Topsham.
Hampden concludes the week by hosting rival Bangor on Friday, and payback will be on the Rams' minds after the Broncos dealt them a 74-36 loss to open the season.
If the season ended tonight, coach Katie Herbine's Rams, who play Mt. Blue at home Tuesday night, would qualify for the tournament, as they're in eighth place in Class A.
Elsewhere, John Bapst has home games with Old Town on Tuesday and MDI on Saturday, both at 7 p.m.
Brewer, which has won three straight to climb above the .500 mark (5-4), faces a tough task Tuesday as the Witches host Skowhegan, while coach Andy Nickerson's team will host Hampden on Martin Luther King Day.
A key matchup in the Class C ranks sends Houlton down Route 1 to face defending state champion Calais.
Coach Shawn Graham's Shiretowners have won seven of their first eight, with the only loss to Class B Caribou, while the Blue Devils are coming off a Saturday setback to Waynflete of Portland.
Other key matchups feature Stearns of Millinocket taking on Dexter on Thursday, and Washburn facing Van Buren in a Class D battle on Friday.