PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Any Eastern Maine Class B girls basketball team looking to snag the gold ball that goes to the state champion will find that road heads due north and goes through Presque Isle.
The 2012 champion Wildcats have been tagged with the favorite label by a number of Big East coaches who will be pursuing Presque Isle this season.
Play in the state’s high school winter sports gets under way Friday.
“I can’t believe another basketball season is here already,” said Jeff Hudson, coach of the Wildcats. “It’s crazy. Crazy.”
Hudson and his Wildcats are preparing for further craziness.
“We know everybody … will be coming at us,” said Hudson, who does have six of last season’s top eight players returning from a squad that went 22-0 last year.
“I lost Kayla Richards, my point guard, and Chelsea Nickerson, my top defender,” said Hudson.
He believes he has enough skill in the remaining players and freshmen to compensate.
“This is the best-shooting team, one through 11, that I’ve ever had,” said Hudson.
Senior Chandler Guerrette, a BDN All-Maine third-teamer, will score some and take on a lot of the ballhandling along with sophomore Hannah Graham. Graham is up to 5 feet, 10 inches now, said Hudson, and will remain a shooting threat, including from outside the 3-point arc.
“Karlee Bernier had a great tournament, and Meredith Stewart will be our inside presence,” said Hudson, and senior Megan Ireland and sophomore Krystal Kingsbury will also be key contributors.
“We’ll still push the ball, attack off the dribble and hope to get a lot of shots, but if we get into a half-court game, we can go big, too,” he said.
He took the Wildcats to a tournament at Catherine McAuley in Portland after Thanksgiving and he liked what he saw.
“We played Mt. Blue, McAuley, Wells — the only Class B team, and Oxford Hills,” he said.
McAuley is the defending Class A state champ, and Mt. Blue of Farmington and Oxford Hills of South Paris are also Class A squads.
“It was good competition for us,” Hudson said.
Hudson also sees a competitive field in Eastern Maine Class B.
“MDI and Hermon are strong,” he said. “Old Town has a young team, but they have some pretty good players. Nokomis and Gardiner will be tough.”
Brent Barker, coach of Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, agrees with Hudson and adds Camden Hills of Rockport and Oceanside of Thomaston/Rockland to the list.
“Hermon is very good,” said Barker, whose team reached the East quarterfinals last year. “They’re led by Raychel Alley and they have a lot of players to complement her. Old Town could be pretty good. They have speed and height. And Ellsworth is going to be competitive this year. They’re going to surprise some people.”
Hudson concedes no team can look past any opponent this year.
“There are always teams who sneak in that you don’t know,” he said.
MDI is led by junior forward Hanna Shaw, the Trojans’ leading scorer and rebounder.
“She was co-player of the year in the Big East,” said Barker.
Shaw is part of a strong cast of starters that will include senior guard Emily Lewis, senior forward Abby Jewett and sophomore point guard Sarah Phelps. Nine of his 13 players are back from last year’s squad.
“This has been shaping up as a very good preseason,” said Barker. “We played Bangor and Brewer the same day. It was good for me because I’ve been working on rotations.”
Playing the two Class A programs proved helpful in other ways, too.
“They both showed what we need to work on,” said Barker. “Bangor is tall and Brewer is relentless. We got to see what it will be like going against Presque Isle.”
He sees the Wildcats as being the ultimate test.
“They’re fast, athletic, and they have good combination of guards and forwards,” Barker said. “They’re the front-runners until somebody knocks them off.”
“Our goal is to close that gap a little bit,” he added.
Old Town coach Dana Maxim says his Coyotes will have to grow up fast to match others’ predictions.
“I lost six seniors who all played a pretty big role,” he said. “I have one starter back.”
That would be his daughter, Kelsey, who will be the captain.
“She has stepped up her presence and is providing leadership,” said Maxim.
Fellow seniors Kelsey Hesseltine and Brooke Cole are also helping guide the younger Coyotes.
“These are the people I’m looking to for leadership,” said Dana Maxim.
Old Town was a big team last year, not so much this year.
“We’re going to try to take advantage of our quickness,” said the coach. “We’ve had some success [in the preseason], but it’s a work in progress.”
Hudson believes his Wildcats are ready for the challenge.
“These kids are winners. They’re a great group of kids,” said Hudson.