LEE, Maine — Lee Academy girls basketball coach Candy Gifford sees progress in her team this year in small ways that she believes the Pandas can build on through the season.
The team struggled through an 0-18 season last year and started 0-2 this year, entering Thursday night’s game in Millinocket against 2012 Eastern Maine Class C runner-up Stearns, but Gifford is finding nuggets of improvement.
“To the casual observer, what they see is two more losses,” said Gifford, in her first year as varsity coach after being the longtime JV coach. “People who understand the game see a lot of improvement there.”
She sees it in the players, too.
“I see it in their faces,” Gifford said. “They’re starting to see improvement there and believe in themselves.”
Sophomore guard McKenzie Pelletier has noticed the difference between last season and this one.
“We get along a lot better,” she said.
Pelletier pointed to Tuesday night’s game in Hermon against the Hawks as an example of the team improving. The Hawks won 62-58, but the Pandas came back from a 17-point deficit to make a game of it in the final minutes. That wouldn’t have been the case last year, she said.
“We would’ve gone down a lot farther than that last year,” Pelletier said.
That change comes from what Gifford and her staff are doing this year.
“We have to find ways to get them motivated and believe in themselves,” said Gifford, adding that it’s a building process and the players have to embrace it.
“We’re setting goals on what we feel we can do better — reducing turnovers, having confidence in each other and getting to know one another on the court,” said Gifford.
Tuesday’s game was an example in reducing turnovers. In the first 16 minutes, Lee committed 15 turnovers, in the second 16 minutes the total was half that.
“Wins can help, but it’s the little small victories that we can point to in practice [that help build the team],” Gifford said.
One example involves Pelletier.
“We set individual goals on things we need to do to get better,” Gifford said. “With McKenzie, we wanted her to go to her left hand more. That would benefit the team.”
“She’s been talking about that a lot,” Pelletier said. “The last couple of practices, I’ve become more confident with [using my left hand].”
Pelletier did go to her left hand more Tuesday as the Pandas drew closer.
She was also stepping up her defensive pressure, leading to a couple of steals and driving in for layups.
Being able to switch to her nondominant hand challenges the opposing defenders.
“It helps so I don’t do the same thing every time down the floor,” she said.
But there are other aspects, too.
“We’re learning to slow things down and set up instead of rushing the game,” Pelletier said. “We’re definitely improving a lot.”
Gifford said it may take a while.
“We’ve got to [have] 15 people who are on board with what we’re doing,” Gifford said.
She believes the team will get there.
“They’re incredibly hard workers,” Gifford said. “I ask them to do something and they do it.”