It’s opening night of the high school basketball season, and a chance for all teams to feel good about themselves as they begin a 2½-month journey they hope will lead to the state’s biggest stages come tournament week.
So why not begin the new season with a thought about who might emerge as Eastern Maine champions by the time the sun angle turns back in our favor come late February. Boys now, girls next week.
Despite graduating nearly all of its player rotation from a year ago save for 6-foot-6-inch Patrick Stewart and reserve guard Nick Sherwood, the defending state champion Bangor Rams will be contenders again.
So, too, will myriad other teams in what could be the deepest Eastern A field in years. Mt. Blue of Farmington and Hampden Academy are the preseason picks to win it all, while Edward Little of Auburn will attempt to reach the regional final for the fifth straight year.
Brunswick, Lewiston, Lawrence of Fairfield and Cony of Augusta also have high hopes, but the pick here is for Hampden, led by senior guard Christian McCue and the one-two inside punch of Logan Poirier and Fred Knight, to break through for the first time since 2006.
Camden Hills will be a factor, but the defending state champion isn’t the pick for the first time in several years.
That honor goes to neighboring Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, which seeks its first regional title since winning the Western B and state titles in 1980.
Coach Nick DePatsy’s club features 6-7 junior John Murray, talented twins Isaac and Alex Greenrose and enough of a supporting cast to not only maintain their recent streak of trips to the Bangor Auditorium but to have a lengthy stay there this year.
A veteran Gardiner team and a Camden Hills squad that may fly under the radar will challenge the Panthers, while a Mount Desert Island team with four starters returning could be the best of the rival Big East Conference. A tall Presque Isle squad and a quick Ellsworth program with plenty of recent postseason success also will be factors.
Lee Academy has reloaded and again is the favorite after winning its first state title last year. Newcomers include former Islesboro 1,000-point scorer D.J. Johnson as well as players from such distant locales as China, Bosnia and Turkey.
Sumner of East Sullivan, which also reached the 2011 regional final, has returned a strong nucleus led by senior guard Gabe O’Brien and frontcourt standout Tylor Martin. Penquis of Milo, Calais and Class C newcomer Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln also could contend, while a young but talented Houlton team may be a year away.
This should be a three-team race among defending state champion Central Aroostook of Mars Hill, Jonesport-Beals and Washburn. Central Aroostook stunned Jonesport-Beals with the decisiveness of their win over the Royals in last year’s Eastern Maine final, and the Panthers return 6-7 center Mike McClung and several other veterans for successful coach Tim Brewer.
Jonesport-Beals has a new head coach in former assistant Gordon Faulkingham and one of the region’s top players in 6-5 junior Garet Beal along with four-year varsity veterans Justin and Matthew Alley.
Washburn can’t match up heightwise with Central Aroostook or Jonesport-Beals, but the Beavers’ explosive offense led by Mitch Worcester and Jordan McLaughlin is capable of outscoring anyone.
But until Central Aroostook is defeated at the Auditorium, it’s the pick to repeat.