The Lee Academy boys basketball team broke through to win its first Class C state championship last winter, parlaying a mix of size and talent into a 21-1 record and a victory over Dirigo of Dixfield in the title game.
The Pandas will have a different look this season, but coach Randy Harris’ club should remain among the top contenders for regional and statewide supremacy in the division.
Six players are back from last year’s team, led by returning starter Dustin Sawtelle, sixth man Jasil Elder, fourth-year varsity player Blaine Guido and sophomore guard Sam Brown.
But an influx of new players will provide significant contributions as well as give Lee depth that may be unmatched in Eastern Maine Class C.
The newcomers are led by senior guard D.J. Johnson, a 1,000-point scorer at Islesboro High School who began the current school year at Hampden Academy before transferring to Lee in early November.
“I haven’t seen him play that much yet,” said Harris recently. “But athletically he’s very good and he’s a complete player. He handles the ball well under pressure, he can get to the basket and shoot the 3-pointer. He’s the complete package.”
Other new players for the Pandas include Haris Karagic, a 6-foot-4-inch senior wing player from Bosnia; Brad Kong, a 6-9, 15-year-old freshman from China and Boubacar Diallo, a 6-2 junior guard from Queens, N.Y.
“Attitude, effort and ability, in that order, are the three things I’m looking for from the kids,” said Harris. “One of the good things about having so many good players is that if someone doesn’t want to share the ball, we can go to somebody else.”
One of the bigger challenges facing both Harris and the players is the assimilation process, both in terms of language and in merging the various basketball cultures that are represented on the Lee roster.
“It probably takes about half the season,” said Harris. “I think about last year and the game we lost at Schenck was probably a good thing for us. We were 6-0 at the time and the kids were really feeling good about themselves, but that loss made them understand that nothing was going to come easy, and from there on out we played really well.”
Among rival teams in the north-central area of Eastern C hoping to challenge the Pandas this season is one of the newcomers to the division, neighboring Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln.
The Lynx, who were reclassified by enrollment down from Class B, graduated just one starter and three players overall from last year’s 3-15 squad.
“This is a good opportunity for us this year and for future years,” said MA coach Ryan Libby. “I think we’re getting back to playing where we belong. We have 24 kids out for our two basketball teams (varsity and JV) this year, and I think those are numbers more in line with Class C.”
MA will play a drastically different schedule than a year ago, with Lee Academy the only team the Lynx played last year that they will play again this season.
“The good thing is that we play a lot of the schools we’ll be playing now during the summer, so we’re familiar with them,” said Libby. “And a lot of those teams we’ve traditionally played in the past.”
The Lynx will feature one of the top players in the division in senior guard Chase Vicaire, one of the top scorers in the Class B Big East Conference last winter and a first-team conference all-star.
“He’s a tough matchup for anyone,” said Libby of the 5-foot-11-inch Vicaire. “He can shoot the 3, he’s a good slasher, he’s very good off the dribble, he finishes around the basket and when he gets to the foul line he’s good there, too.”
Other veterans expected to figure heavily in MA’s progress this winter are senior guards Matt Voisine and Timmy Cummings, senior forward Nick L’Italien and sophomore guard Trysten Pelkey, who’s coming off a strong football season for the Lynx.
The team also will benefit from the return of senior guard Matt Guiod. Guiod, a guard, is the current Eastern C individual cross country champion and has come back to basketball after competing in indoor track last winter.
Penquis Valley of Milo, a consistent contender under veteran coach Tony Hamlin, also figures prominently in the Eastern C picture.
The Patriots, who finished 14-6 last winter and reached the regional semifinals before falling to Lee, graduated five seniors but return a solid nucleus that includes talented sophomores Trevor Lyford and Isaiah Bess.
Other teams expected to contend in the division include a veteran Sumner of East Sullivan team that’s coming off a trip to last year’s regional final, perennial power Calais, a young and talented Houlton squad and another newcomer to the division, Bucksport.