The concept of defending a state championship is rarely pure, in that teams evolve from year to year no matter how much the lineup changes.
That’s certainly the case for the reigning Class AA state champion Bangor High School boys basketball team, which graduated four starters and returns just one player, senior forward Henry Westrich, with significant varsity experience.
But the Rams’ look as they open the 2019-20 season at Portland on Friday night will be even more different since last March’s gold-ball celebration with the addition of two transfer students who will add their size and experience to the mix.
For Andrew Szwez, a 6-foot-5 junior forward from Penobscot who spent his first two years of high school at Class C power George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, the shift to Bangor transcended the athletic opportunity.
“I was looking for a bigger high school,” said Szwez, who as a freshman was a contributing reserve on GSA’s 2018 Class C state championship team. “It’s been a really good fit for me. Everybody’s been pretty welcoming, so it hasn’t been a tough transition.”
Sam Martin, a 6-foot-8 senior center from Milford who previously attended Orono High School, similarly was looking for a change, an option that his coming from a town with no specific high school affiliation afforded, as was the case with Szwez.
“It’s been a great transition,” Martin said. “I feel like the environment here fits me, the academics are great. I love it here, but I also wish them the best over at Orono.”
The addition of Szwez and Martin to the 6-4 Westrich gives Bangor’s basketball team one of the taller frontcourts in the state.
“They are both coming from places where I think it was cemented that they were kind of role players,” Westrich said. “Now they’re coming into open, vacant spaces where they can really, really contribute to this team, where they can rise up and assume a bigger role. I think they’re going to really help.”
Szwez will be asked to complement Westrich’s work both on the perimeter and near the basket, while Martin will seek to provide interior defense, rebounding and a low-post presence on offense.
“Sam is going to be such a presence inside, and Henry obviously can shoot the three. We all complement each other really well,” Szwez said. “I think I can make the right decisions on the court. I feel like I’m a pretty good passer, and I’ve been working on my shot a lot.”
Szwez, Martin and the team’s two other seniors, Parker Noyes and Quinn Richards, should help take some pressure off Westrich in his expanded role after spending the past two years complementing 2019 Mr. Basketball Matthew Fleming and high-scoring guard Damien Vance.
“It starts with Henry,” Bangor coach Brad Libby said. “He’s a senior who played big minutes for us last year, and he’s just a workhorse; he never stops going. I think a lot of guys are going to feed off him and his energy level.”
Bangor follows its season opener with a visit to Lewiston next Tuesday before its home debut against Windham on Dec. 13.
Such early season games represent the next stage of an acclimation process that began last summer for Martin and Szwez as they began to familiarize themselves with their new teammates and a different system.
“They’ve worked hard, and they’re fitting right in,” Libby said. “They’re good leaders. They’re not coming in thinking they’re at the top of the line. They’re fitting in with the other guys and working their butts off.
“It’s really special when some of your most talented players and your upperclassmen are also your hardest workers. It really helps bring the other players along.”
Bangor’s roster also includes a heavy dose of youth, with seven sophomores and one freshman on the 15-player varsity squad. That merely adds to the early season patience that may be required of a team picked fourth in the Class AA North preseason coaches poll.
“Last year’s group had played together for so long they knew where each other was going to be on the floor,” Libby said. “This is a different of a group. We’re going to have to learn where people are on the floor, but it’s an intelligent group. They love each other, and IQ wise they’re right up there.
“I think they’ll pick things up pretty quickly.”