All 13 Class A boys basketball teams in Eastern Maine share a primary goal — the chance to represent the region in the state championship game come next March 1.
And 12 of those 13 teams see a similar primary obstacle in pursuit of that opportunity.
“I don’t think anybody has any doubt,” said Brewer coach Clayton Blood, “that Hampden Academy is arguably the best team in the state. They’re truly a special team.”
Hampden, indeed, enters the new season with a resume and lineup befitting the favorite’s role in the region.
Coach Russ Bartlett’s club is the defending state champion after edging Lawrence of Fairfield at the buzzer to win its second straight Eastern Maine title and then capping off an undefeated season by defeating South Portland in the state final behind first-team Bangor Daily News All-Maine forward and reigning Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference player of the year Zach Gilpin.
The 6-foot-5 Gilpin is back to lead the Broncos in their quest for the program’s third gold ball in the last 10 years, as are younger brother Nick Gilpin, a sophomore guard whose 30-foot shot as time expired lifted Hampden past Lawrence 40-39 in the 2013 regional final, senior guard Cam Scott, senior forward Matt Martin and a talented sophomore class poised to make significant contributions this winter.
Then there’s a new weapon for the Broncos in senior wing Isaiah Bess, a transfer from Penquis Valley of Milo who averaged more than 26 points per game last winter in leading the Patriots to the Class C state championship and also earned BDN All-Maine first-team recognition.
While all teams invariably change from year to year, integrating the talented Bess — who already has accepted a basketball scholarship from Division II Stonehill College — into the rotation has been a unique part of Hampden’s preparation for the new season.
“With the very skilled player it’s really seeing what their strengths are and how you can incorporate them into what you are doing to better your team, as well as what can we provide that’s more competitive to get him to play at an even higher level,” said Bartlett, who faced a similar scenario several years ago when guard Graham Safford — now starring at Bates College — transferred to Hampden from Camden Hills of Rockport.
“Those are things that are important, but it really depends on the individual. How willing are they to buy in, and is it about them or is it about them being part of something bigger than themselves?”
Another contending team facing a somewhat similar integration process is Bangor.
The Rams, 13-6 a year ago, have welcomed back senior guard Xavier Lewis, who played a significant role for Bangor as a sophomore before transferring last year to Lawrence, where he helped the Bulldogs reach the brink of an Eastern Maine championship.
“It’s a little easier for X,” said Bangor coach Ed Kohtala, “because even when he was at Lawrence last year the kids may have ribbed him a little bit but he was still seen by them as a Bangor kid.”
Both Bess and Lewis played with their current basketball teams during the summer league season, and both also played significant roles on successful teams at their schools this fall. Bess was the goalkeeper for the Eastern Maine Class A champion Hampden boys soccer team, while Lewis quarterbacked Bangor’s football team to a regional semifinal berth.
Lewis will team in the Bangor backcourt with fellow All-KVAC first-teamer Alex Campbell as part of a perimeter-oriented club save for senior center Conner Adams.
“We’ll very likely play four guards a lot of the time,” said Kohtala. “There’s a great spirit here, and I like our overall team speed and quickness. For us it’s all about our ability to rebound the ball.”
Other Eastern A contenders should include Messalonskee of Oakland — with its inside-outside combo of All-KVAC first-team guard Jordon Holmes and 6-foot-7 center Nick Mayo — along with Edward Little of Auburn and Brunswick.
Another team hoping for upward mobility is Brewer, which just missed a postseason berth last winter.
The Witches remain youthful with just three seniors on the roster, but in Blood have a veteran coach beginning his second stint at Brewer’s varsity helm.
“My first job as a coach is just like it is in the classroom, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each player and try to improve on the weaknesses and build on the strengths,” said Blood, a teacher in the Brewer system who coached the school’s freshman team last winter. “And just like with any other coach, the hope is to be able to judge those things correctly.”
Brewer will be led by senior guard Brendan Newcomb, a first-team All-KVAC honoree last winter, as well as sophomores Logan Rogerson and Matt Pushard, both KVAC All-Rookie selections as freshmen.
“I’m extremely optimistic that this team is going to play extremely hard and be very entertaining,” said Blood.