Nokomis Regional High School of Newport won the Eastern Maine Class B girls basketball championship last year and was state runner-up the year before.
Coach Kori Dionne knows what that means: The rest of the Eastern Maine teams want to knock the Warriors off their perch.
“We’ve had a target on our back for a couple of years now,” she said.
Dionne’s squad is not backing down from the challenge.
“This group is not afraid to work hard, and [being the opponent’s focus] is a good motivational tool,” she said.
Presque Isle is the primary challenger. The Wildcats have been knocked off in the semifinals by Nokomis the past two years. Presque Isle was the top-seeded team in February.
Wildcat coach Jeff Hudson would like to avenge those losses come February.
“I hope so,” he said, but he also acknowledged that it won’t be easy.
“Everything goes through Nokomis,” said Hudson. “When you talk about ‘B,’ you start there.”
Mike Webb, coach of last season’s No. 2 seed John Bapst of Bangor, thinks Presque Isle may have the upper hand this time.
“Definitely Presque Isle and Nokomis” as the top two, he said. “I don’t know which order. Presque Isle has gotten better and they’re probably the best on paper.”
Other challengers could include Old Town, Mount Desert Island, Hermon, Oceanside of Rockland, Camden Hills of Rockport, and Medomak Valley of Waldoboro and Gardiner.
“I think on any given night you can see a team do good things,” said Dionne.
She plans to have the Warriors be one of them.
“We have a lot of people we can go to,” Dionne said. “We can go big, go small or a combo.
“We could have balanced scoring with four or five players in double figures or one player who could go nuts. And I think it would be a different person each night.”
Pressing will be the key on defense.
“We like to put pressure on all the way up the floor,” said Dionne. “In the half-court, 95 percent of the time we’ll play man-to-man. The girls take pride in it, and I haven’t seen any reason to go away from it.”
Senior forward and co-captain Marissa Shaw and sophomore center Anna Mackenzie will be handling the bulk of the rebounding.
Dionne does face one challenge with her team, though.
“My problem is I can only put five on the floor at a time,” she said.
The Wildcats are eager to topple the Warriors, according to Hudson.
“The girls know we lost to Nokomis, and they know why,” he said. “We were good, they were better, and I hope we’ve done things to get over that hurdle.”
Presque Isle has lost three times in the semis and that’s enough, said Hudson.
“That’s good for most teams, but we’re kind of sick of it,” he said.
Hudson hopes the fact several of his players also played on PI’s state Class B runner-up soccer team will help the basketball team.
“Winning leads to more winning, I hope,” he said.
The Wildcats feature “size, quickness and shooters, a little bit of everything,” Hudson added.
Defense has drawn added attention in the preseason.
“We want to play good defense, without fouling and rebound,” he said.
Bapst’s Webb sees his team struggling to start the season.
That’s because the Pyne sisters, sophomore Abby and junior Sarah, have been injured.
“Abby has knee issues,” said Webb, “and Sarah has a broken collarbone from soccer.”
They’re the Crusaders’ tallest players, and “we’re very small without them,” said Webb.
But the season will start before either of them returns. Sarah Pyne may miss only a couple of games. Abby’s situation is less clear.
“We’re moving forward with who we have,” Webb said.
He remains hopeful, though.
“It matters where you finish, not how you start,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error. Nokomis of Newport was the Eastern Maine champion, but did not win the state title last year. Western Maine champ Leavitt of Turner Center won the state crown.