Editor’s note: One of two stories previewing Eastern Maine Class C boys basketball teams.
MILO, Maine — Tony Hamlin has been coaching high school basketball in Maine for 33 years.
He believes two of the players on this year’s Penquis Valley High School team could play for anybody in the state.
Hamlin and the Patriots plan to build around the skills of junior guards Isaiah Bess and Trevor Lyford this winter as they try to unseat Lee Academy as the Eastern Maine Class C champion.
“We have two players who are probably two of the top 25 kids in the state, really, and that’s Isaiah Bess and Trevor Lyford,” Hamlin said. “They’re both juniors and they’re talented.”
Bess was an All-PVC first-team choice and a BDN All-Maine honorable mention last season, while Lyford earned All-PVC second-team recognition.
The duo headlines a group of four returning starters, one that also includes 6’2” junior Jason Durant and 6’1” senior Cody Herbest, who was an PVC All-Defensive pick in 2011. Senior Tyler Pellitier (5-10) will run the point.
Penquis and Lee Academy are among the preseason favorites along with Houlton and Calais, who will be previewed in the next story. Other potential tourney contenders in today’s group include an improved Stearns of Millinocket and Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln.
Hamlin said quality depth will enable Penquis to ramp up its man-to-man pressure defense. The Patriots will look for contributions from senior George Cowing, 6’3” junior center Derek Johnson and brothers Cody Larrabee, a senior, and Colton Larrabee, a junior, both of whom can shoot the ball.
“We’ve got good team quickness. We start five kids who can scramble,” Hamlin said.
“We pressure most of the time and I think we’ll be better at it,” he added. “We’re going to be difficult to play against if we bring the right attitude.”
Even if Penquis is unable to generate offense off its defense, it isn’t likely to suffer through many protracted scoring droughts. Not with Bess and Lyford on the floor.
Bess, at 6’3”, has added size and strength. He’s tough to contain when attacking the basket.
“Isaiah is probably the best kid I’ve ever had in transition,” Hamlin said. “Between the foul lines, in the open court, he is really good.”
Bess is on track to score his 1,000th career point this season.
Lyford, a versatile, 6-foot shooting guard, also has bulked up. He returns healthy after playing much of last season with a broken bone in his wrist that required surgery in March.
“He was in a lot of pain last year,” Hamlin said. “Trevor’s just a really exceptional, all-around player.”
Hamlin hopes this year’s team is hungry to take the next step and possibly win an Eastern Maine title.
“I know we’re a better team,” he said. “These kids are pretty resilient. They’re tenacious and they’re competitive. If they get down, they will not go away quietly.”
Lee Academy must try to replace four starters off the squad that finished as the Class C state runner-up in 2012.
Coach Randy Harris will try to maintain an impressive run by the Pandas that has included a state championship in 2011 and a 40-4 overall record over the last two seasons.
“We definitely had some losses, but we’ve got some real good players back from last year’s team and some good new players,” Harris said.
Heading the group of veterans is versatile 6’2” senior Jason Wu.
“He can play all five positions, defensively especially,” Harris said. “He’s extremely quick and can jump out of the gym.”
Wu is joined by 6’9” sophomore Brad Kong, a part-time starter last season, and junior Devin Peters who, along with sophomores Kyler Peters and Nathanael Thurlow, bring back experience.
The newcomers are paced by 5’7” senior Julian Diggs, who will assume point guard duties for the Pandas.
“He will be the one that makes us go,” Harris said. “He’s a very good slasher and penetrator and he’s quick on the defensive end.”
Senior Steven Ma and junior Cherif Fall help give Lee an unusually tall front court.
“It’s probably the biggest team I’ve ever had. And the slowest,” Harris said with a chuckle.
The personnel changes mean Lee will be a much different team this season in terms of its style of play.
“We’ll probably play a little slower, a little more zone defense, because of the size that we have,” said Harris, who nonetheless expects the Pandas to make a run by the time they get to the Bangor Auditorium in February.