The Narraguagus girls basketball team made history the old-fashioned way last winter.
In claiming the first state championship in program history, the Knights of Harrington surrendered only 29.2 points per game in their four tournament outings.
If coach Heather Thompson’s Knights want to repeat this winter, they’re going to need to have the same type of defensive mindset after losing three starters.
“We lost our height, we’re not very tall this year,” Thompson said, noting her tallest player is 5-foot-8 sophomore Kylee Joyce. “We just have to make some adjustments, still focus on defense and rebounding and being really aggressive.”
While the defending state champions did graduate standout center Kelli Kennedy and three other seniors, the Knights do have some returning depth. Returnees include Joyce; junior guard Madison Leighton; sophomore guard Lanie Perry; and senior guard and forward Kayla Toppin.
Thompson said Caitlin Reynolds, Hannah Alley, Shi Weed, Madison Prague, Keanna Reynolds and Liza Frye could see valuable minutes this season as well. Reynolds, Alley and Toppin are the Knights’ lone seniors.
“They’re hungry. They got a taste of a championship last year and they liked it,” Thompson said. “They’re very capable of playing hardcore basketball.”
Joyce likely will be counted on to fill the inside void left by Kennedy, while Perry, Toppin and Leighton will play key roles in the backcourt.
Fortunately for Thompson, Narraguagus will have multiple players who she can count on to put the ball in the basket.
“And that’s fine,” she said. “I would rather have five players that could play. They all contribute something different.”
One team that could be poised to take monumental steps forward this winter is Stearns of Millinocket.
Coach Nick Cullen’s Minutemen made it to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor last February before losing to Dexter in the quarterfinals, but a number of his players have championship experience from regional softball championships the last two springs.
“The girls are really pumped up,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a really good season.”
Cullen returns four starters in senior point guard Emma Alley, junior forward Paige Ingersoll, senior center Mackenzie Carter (5-9) and senior guard Abby Russell.
The Minutemen also will welcome Alley’s freshman sister, Katherine, into the mix, giving Stearns one of the deepest backcourts in Class C North.
“The style we play, it’s nice to have some kids come in off the bench,” said Cullen, whose Minutemen will go roughly 10 deep this year.
Stearns also will feature juniors Callie Waceken, Marissa Marter and Sidney Farquhar, sophomores Julia Stanley and Bailey Girsa and freshman Adria Doane.
Cullen said making it to Bangor last winter ignited his team’s fire over the offseason.
“It’s just amazing the work ethic they have,” he said. “They just don’t stop until they get what they want.”
And that could potentially be a shot at a state championship, something no girls program at Stearns has accomplished.
The team that ended the Minutemen’s season last year, Dexter, always plays stingy defense and features one of Class C North’s top players in senior center Megan Peach.
Coach Jody Grant’s Tigers have already had to deal with some early adversity, with senior point guard Cidney Pratt suffering a torn ACL in the offseason. Grant said he is hopeful Pratt, who underwent surgery and elected to wear a brace, will be able to go.
Regardless, the leadership of Peach will be vital for Dexter, which lost to Narraguagus in the semifinals last winter.
“Her leadership has really grown,” Grant said. “She’s really continuing to grow as a young lady, which bodes well for us.”
Dexter also welcomes back senior guard Abby Webber, whom Grant called “one of the best defenders in our league,” and senior forward Kayli Cunningham, who is expected to be in the Tigers’ starting rotation after coming off the bench last winter.
Juniors Kaitlyn Webber and Becca Barton and sophomores Kaylee Deering and Danielle Cummings also will be key players for Dexter.
Tradition-laden Calais has a new head coach familiar to Down East basketball circles in longtime Woodland girls coach Arnie Clark.
The Blue Devils graduated just three seniors, and they always play one of the most challenging schedules in Class C.
“We do play Houlton and Washington Academy, two Class B schools,” Clark said. “Those will be challenging.”
Houlton is the reigning Class B state champion.
Calais lost to Fort Fairfield in the quarterfinals last winter, and Clark is hopeful his club can make even bigger strides this season.
“We’re going to have a mix of youth and experience,” he said. “It depends on how we can blend that all together.”
Fort Fairfield, which won 17 games and earned the No. 1 seed in Class C North last winter before falling to Penobscot Valley of Howland in the semifinals, will be in somewhat of a rebuild mode this winter, according to head coach Larry Gardner, who is in his 28th year.
Gardner’s Tigers graduated four seniors off of last year’s squad, and he won’t have any seniors this season.
“We’ve got to see who is going to step up and how hard the kids are going to step up,” he said.
If anything, there isn’t expected to be that one team that is looming as a heavy favorite.
“I think there’ll be 4-5 teams that are kind of at the top of the pack,” Cullen said. “I hope to be one of them.”
Other teams expected to be in the mix include George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, Bucksport and Piscataquis Community of Guilford.