BANGOR, Maine — All three courts inside Red Barry Gymnasium were brimming with activity during one recent night.
Forty-two players representing Bangor High School’s varsity, junior varsity and freshman boys basketball teams were hard at it, preparing for the new season that began around the state Friday night.
“Our philosophy is being positive,” said first-year Bangor varsity head coach Brad Libby. “If you miss a shot, then it’s on to the next shot. We want you to take that shot, because if you don’t have the confidence to do it then positive things aren’t going to happen.”
Positivity is particularly important this season since the Bangor program has experienced some instability since Roger Reed resigned as head coach in 2012 after leading the Rams to eight Class A state championships during his 27 years on the sidelines.
Bangor is 54-58 overall and 0-4 in postseason play since the departure of Reed — now a state legislator representing the Hermon area and also an assistant coach under his son Mark with the boys varsity basketball team at Hermon High School. Last winter, the Hawks finished 22-0 and captured the Class B state championship.
Bangor went 32-24 in three subsequent years in Class A and has gone 22-34 in its first three years of Class AA North play under the five-class statewide format.
Libby is Bangor’s third head coach since Reed left, following Ed Kohtala, now the head coach at Orono, and Carl Parker, who resigned shortly before Bangor’s regional quarterfinal at Windham last February after being arrested for operating while under the influence of intoxicants.
The most recent offseason was complicated further by significant injuries to Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team senior forward Matthew Fleming (dislocated elbow) and All-Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference senior guard Damien Vance (dislocated ankle).
Nowhere to go but up, you might ask? The returning Rams certainly think so.
Both Fleming and Vance, the latter ahead of schedule, are back and ready for Bangor’s home opener against Oxford Hills of South Paris on Dec. 11. They are among all 11 returning members of the 2017-2018 team that finished 9-10 after a 78-62 playoff loss at Windham.
“It’s great to have the same group back,” said junior forward Henry Westrich, another returning starter.
“Even with a new coach coming in and a new (offensive) set it’s still just everybody stepping up in the process. It hasn’t been a struggle at all.”
Added to the returnees — who also include starters Noah Missbrenner and Jason Smith — are four newcomers led by transfer Isaac Cummings, a senior point guard who led KVAC Class B last winter with his average of 6.56 assists at Brewer.
“We’ve put in so much work and really progressed,” said the 6-foot-6 Fleming, who has committed to play next year at Army. “I know other teams probably have, too, but we have everyone back and we played every team close last year except maybe Portland.”
A lack of depth was a major factor last winter as Bangor finished fifth in the eight-school Class AA North.
“All of those weeks really took a toll on all five of us who were playing most of the games,” said Westrich.
Libby, a licensed physical therapist who spent six years as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Husson University after his own playing career at Brewer High and Husson, has nurtured that increased depth since being hired to lead the Rams in May.
“The first main point was to get everybody to know me,” said Libby, who stressed the need for other players to step up with the injuries to Fleming and Vance.
“It allowed other and younger guys to get that playing time and experience on the floor,” Libby said. “Having them playing with the older guys kind of brought them along faster.”
Now with Fleming and Vance healthy, the Rams are relishing being considered a contender for a deep tournament run come February.
“Rather than last year hoping for a state championship this year I’m almost expecting a state championship because I think we’re that caliber of a team,” said Fleming, who is in his second year at Bangor after transferring from Oxford Hills.
“I wouldn’t be able to deal with any less than that.”
Class AA North will not be without considerable competition. Defending state champion Edward Little of Auburn has a first-team BDN All-Maine performer in senior forward Wol Maiwen, and while Portland graduated 2018 Mr. Basketball Terion Moss to the University of Maine the Bulldogs return 6-4 forward Trey Ballew and senior guard Pedro Fonseca.
Oxford Hills features a talented senior class led by University of Maine-bound baseball pitcher Colton Carson, while Deering of Portland boasts senior forward Ben Onek, a BDN All-Maine second-teamer last winter.
Bangor’s road to re-establishing itself as a contender — and earning its first postseason victory since Reed’s final season in 2012 — has a basic foundation.
“If we can play defense every night as hard as we can and be a gritty team on the defensive end then we’re going to have a very successful year,” said Libby.
“We have the offensive firepower, but we really need to dig in on the defensive end and make sure we’re taking care of business there.”