Basketball roundup: Congrats to coach Russell; Hampden, Bangor start strong

Posted Dec. 22, 2011, at 5:34 p.m.

A few thoughts as the high school basketball season enters the Christmas weekend …

… Congratulations are in order for Penobscot Valley of Howland boys basketball coach Jamie Russell, whose team scored its first victory as a Class D program and his 300th victory as a varsity coach with a 36-35 victory over Stearns of Millinocket on Tuesday evening.

The win came at Sereyko Memorial Gymnasium, where Russell gained also his first coaching win in 1986 during an earlier stint with the Howlers.

Russell has succeeded in programs not generally known as basketball factories in Eastern Maine during 27 years as a boys varsity basketball coach, as in addition to his two stops at Penobscot Valley he also has coached at Central of Corinth and Piscataquis of Guilford, where he guided the Pirates to the 2000 Eastern Maine Class C championship.

Penobscot Valley, a longtime Class C program, was reclassified by enrollment to Class D for the first time this year. The Howlers were 1-3 entering Thursday night’s game at Searsport. …

… LESS THAN two full weeks into the schedule, and the number of unbeaten programs remaining in Eastern Maine Class A — boys and girls — already has been reduced to an elite few in suggesting that the parity predicted in the region is coming true.

Hampden Academy and Lewiston are the only two boys teams in the division to win their first four games, and perhaps Hampden’s 4-0 start is the most surprising if only because of the caliber of the Broncos’ competition.

Coach Russ Bartlett’s club has emerged from an early season gauntlet that has included Bangor as well as fellow contenders Mt. Blue of Farmington and Lawrence of Fairfield, with the Broncos edging Bangor in overtime and Lawrence by a basket on the road by erasing a nine-point fourth quarter deficit. Against Mt. Blue, Hampden built a 20-point second-quarter lead before holding on to win by nine points thanks to a game-ending 8-0 run.

The Broncos had shown it all entering Thursday night’s game against Messalonskee of Oakland — talent, experience and depth. Senior guard Christian McCue and frontcourt classmates Logan Poirier and Fred Knight have led the way, with juniors Brian Fickett, Matt Palmer and Tyler Norris and sophomores Zach Gilpin and Cam Scott all making major contributions to the fast start.

Lewiston similarly returned a strong nucleus from the 2010-11 squad that lost to Hampden 70-51 in the Eastern A quarterfinals. The Blue Devils have not yet faced the strength of schedule that the Broncos have survived to this point, but a home game Friday against 3-1 Edward Little of Auburn should change that.

And perhaps equally impressive as the early season unbeaten runs of Hampden and Lewiston has been the 3-1 start of a Bangor team that returned just one core member of its playing rotation from last year’s state championship team.

That veteran, senior center Patrick Stewart, has played a leading role for a Rams team coming off a noteworthy two-point win at Mt. Blue on Tuesday night. But while the other leaders of last year’s title run have graduated, new players have emerged in new roles within coach Roger Reed’s system, and the beat seemingly goes on. …

… THE EASTERN A girls basketball ranks are similarly balanced, with Cony of Augusta and Messalonskee of Oakland the only teams still unbeaten entering Thursday night’s schedule.

And, oddly enough, these teams from abutting school systems do not play during the regular season.

Even more striking is the fact that of the 14 teams in the division, just two others — Mount Ararat of Topsham and Skowhegan — have just one loss, leaving the remaining 10 teams at .500 or less.

And the five members of the .500 club — Bangor, Brunswick, Edward Little, Oxford Hills of South Paris and Hampden Academy — all have shown themselves capable of contending with league leaders, which is something to look forward to as this season of parity continues.

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