The Houlton girls are shooting for their third consecutive state championship, but based on the stellar competition in the Class B North region, they will have to earn it.
The Shires have Bangor Daily News All-Maine Schoolgirl first-team selection Kolleen Bouchard and other talents like senior captain Rylee Warman and junior forward Aspen Flewelling, so they are the favorites. But the regular season provided its share of challenges, such as the Jan. 25 home loss to Presque Isle and tight victories over Hermon (two overtimes), John Bapst and the Wildcats.
“With such a balanced Class B field, I think we are very fortunate to be the one team with just one loss,” Houlton coach Shawn Graham said with three games remaining. “The parity within our class is unbelievable, so you have to show up every night ready to play or you’re going to get beat.”
Bouchard, a junior, has put together another brilliant season by averaging 27.5 points and 8.5 rebounds.
“She is a fantastic, clutch player and does so many things to help her team win,” said Wildcats coach Jeff Hudson, adding that Warman (12.1 ppg) and Flewelling (10 ppg) have been vital complements to Bouchard.
Warman said the loss to Presque Isle reinforced the lesson that you can’t take anything for granted, and feels her team learned a lot because of it.
“You can’t win them all, but you move forward and learn from your mistakes,” she said.
Graham is pleased with his team’s offensive attack, which has averaged 63 points, including 50-percent shooting from 3-point distance.
“We have a group of veterans who play with lots of confidence,” he said.
Perimeter defense is a concern for Graham, and that is the reason Presque Isle has been a difficult matchup this season.
“I think we are a dangerous tournament team because of the way we play,” Hudson said. “If we are making 3-pointers, we are tough to beat and could beat anyone … but the problem with being a jump shooting team is that if we are cold, we could lose to anyone.”
Junior Emily Wheaton has put together an amazing season, averaging 21 points, 6 assists and 2 steals per game.
“She’s been incredible offensively as she scores and does a majority of our ball-handling,” Hudson said.
Seniors Emily Lagerstrom (12 ppg), the most accurate 3-point shooter on the team who has improved in all other facets of the game, and 5-11 center Skylar Vogel, a difference maker on defense who also averages 10 ppg, are other key PI players.
Hermon is another team to watch, thanks to a talented front line consisting of 6-foot senior Emi Higgins (9 ppg, 7 rpg) and 5-10 junior Lauren Plissey (8 ppg and 10 rpg) and some good guard play. The Hawks, under second-year coach Chris Cameron, made a successful run in last year’s tourney, advancing all the way to the finals as the No. 7 seed. Nobody will overlook them this time around.
“They are tough competition because of their high-low game,” Warman said.
Foxcroft Academy, who enjoyed victories over Hermon and PI during the regular season, is another big team, led by seniors Grace Bickford (10 ppg, 8 rpg) and Abigail Simpson (9 ppg, 10 rpg), causing matchup problems for opponents.
John Bapst, behind 3-point ace Crystal Bell (18 ppg) and senior forward Grace Philippon (15 ppg), poses a threat along with Central, an athletic team led by junior Sydney Allen, and Winslow, a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference power with good quickness. A youthful, scrappy MDI team cannot be overlooked.
“You look at how close some of the regular-season games were and you know that every one of the top eight teams are legitimate threats and dangerous enough to put together three strong games and win the title,” Bell said.