When evaluating Aroostook County Class D boys basketball, there are certain givens.
First, the County is going to have a handful of the top contenders for the Eastern Maine title.
Second, especially in recent years, the road to a regional title is likely to pass through Central Aroostook.
Last season, coach Tim Brewer directed the Panthers from Mars Hill to the school’s second title in four years and its fourth in the last seven seasons.
Brewer, who returns three starters and the other key contributors off last season’s 22-0 ballclub, likes what he sees from this team so far.
“This year’s team for me probably is going to be better than last year,” Brewer said. “We have added some scoring, some perimeter shooting, which we didn’t have last year.”
However, Brewer fully expects to meet considerable resistance in the County from the likes of Washburn, Easton and Hodgdon, all of whom have considerable returning experience and talent.
“Washburn basically has the same team that it had last year that lost to Jonesport-Beals in the semifinals,” Brewer said of coach Randy Norsworthy’s team.
“Hodgdon’s going to be good. That’s another team that basically has everybody back from last year,” he added of Rob Smith’s contingent, which moved over from Class C.
The Panthers are building around a veteran nucleus that is anchored by senior Mike McClung, the Eastern Maine Class D tournament’s Warner MVP last season. The 6-foot-6 center and three-year starter is a handful for opponents, who often play zones in an attempt to bottle him up in the paint.
“He’s improved,” Brewer said. “I’ll move him around more this year because he’ll probably be keyed on.”
Also back in the fold are 6-foot senior guard/forward Brendan York, a four-year starter, and 5-foot-10-inch guard Dan Brewer.
The Panthers’ lineup is bolstered by 6-foot-3-inch forward Steven Decker, who was the sixth man a year ago and provides more of a perimeter complement to McClung’s post presence. The fifth starter is 5-foot-11-inch freshman point guard Chandler Brewer, the coach’s son.
In addition to having more perimeter shooting punch, Central Aroostook also has good overall quickness. Junior Joe Stiles and senior Ross Grass give the Panthers experience coming off the bench, while sophomore Spencer Garrison and freshmen Zach McClung, Alex Folsom and Caleb Dube are working to be in the mix.
“The skill set of all of them is fairly equal at this point. I could play any of them,” Brewer said.
He expects a bit of an adjustment in re-establishing the defense after the graduation of lock-down defender Logan McLaughlin.
Brewer, who played on CAHS’ 1994 state championship team, said there is no substitute for winning and its effect on the confidence of the players in the program.
“I think winning breeds success,” he said. “Once you win, you know how to do it.”
“They work hard and they’ve bought into what we’re selling,” Brewer said.
Washburn is another Aroostook County team that should challenge for EM supremacy.
The Beavers, who finished 17-3 and lost to Jonesport-Beals in the semifinals, feature one of the region’s most prolific scorers in guard Mitch Worcester. The 6-foot-3-inch junior point guard averaged 28 points per game en route to all-tournament honors last season.
The 1,000-point scorer is among four returning starters in a group that includes 5-foot-9-inch senior guard Jordan McLaughlin, who also is poised to surpass 1,000 points, 6-foot-3-inch senior forward Mason Turner and speedy 5-foot-8-inch junior swingman Nick Bragg.
Norsworthy said Washburn needs to set a brisk tempo, using pressure defense to create scoring opportunities.
“We’re an up-and-down-the-court team,” he said. “The higher the score, the more conducive it is for us to win.”
Washburn made a tournament-record 20 3-pointers in a game last season.
Senior Chase Chandler gives the Beavers a stout defensive presence in the paint to help them contend with the likes of Mike McClung.
“It’s about having fun, which is our type of game with the personnel that we have,” Norsworthy said.
Hodgdon went 5-13 last season in Class C, but may have enough experience to work itself into the Class D mix. Juniors Nick Lunn, Devin Logie and Josh Hudson, along with sophomore Tyler Sherman, are returning starters with considerable experience.
“We will still be a young team, but many of our upperclassmen saw significant time on the varsity floor last year,” coach Smith said.
Easton, led by first-year coach Dillon Kingsbury of Presque Isle, is coming off an 11-8 season and a prelim appearance. The Bears have a handful of proven players, led by senior guards Holden Turner and Reid Clark, junior guard Jared Hafford and senior forwards Jonah Bacon and Cody Tompkins.
Turner is out of action while nursing an elbow injury.
The remaining Aroostook County squads are Fort Fairfield, Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook, Wisdom of St. Agatha, Greater Houlton Christian Academy, Ashland, Van Buren and Limestone Community School/Maine School of Science and Mathematics.