Mark Thurlow sounds energized, and the student participation level in the Buckfield boys’ basketball program is beyond healthy.
Now the key is to translate that novelty and excitement into wins on the court and upward movement in the East-West Conference.
Thurlow, who had two tenures at Telstar covering nearly two decades, knows that may take some time.
“They have a tradition, although it has been a while. The past five or six years, they’ve been getting to the preliminary round, maybe the quarterfinals,” Thurlow said. “This is quite a thing for me. It’s a challenge. I’ve coached against some great guys. Now I have to learn about a whole new group of coaches and teams.”
He has learned about his own team by stacking them against familiar faces from the MVC, Class C tournament hopefuls Mountain Valley and Monmouth.
Buckfield lost both exhibition games by 20 to 30 points but showed steady improvement from the opening tap to the final buzzer.
“I’m playing a lot of people,” Thurlow said. “I think I’m going to be able to go 8, 9 or 10 deep, and I’m hoping we can do some switching up of defenses at some point. That’s what I like to do.”
Thurlow can afford to experiment with combinations and pick up the tempo. He had 33 kids try out for Buckfield’s varsity and junior varsity teams.
Jared Eastman and Tyler Vallee give the Bucks a steadying senior presence in the backcourt.
Juniors Jon Randolph and Sidney Jackson are new to the squad and will provide an infusion of athleticism. Thurlow called Jackson “maybe one of the best athletes I’ve ever had.”
“He’s big. He’s strong. Nobody is going to out-jump him,” the coach added. “Once he gets an idea how to play offense, he’s going to be difficult to defend.”
Buckfield may struggle out of the gate against 2014 Class D West champion Valley and 2013 Class D champion Forest Hills the first week of the season, but the Bucks expect their depth to be a boon against age-old rivals Richmond and Rangeley.
“I’m excited. The kids are excited. They’re hungry,” Thurlow said. “I would hope we can compete for a playoff spot. That’s the kids’ goal.”
Speaking of Rangeley, the Lakers are younger and thinner than the Bucks, but no less hopeful about using their scrappy quickness to spring a few surprises.
“We won three games last year, and it was kind of a rebuilding year,” Rangeley coach Jeff Larochelle said. “But I think we lost four games by eight points or less, and I had one senior, one junior and basically sophomores and eighth-graders after that, so you know what? It’s possible we could turn those around.”
Rangeley has been without lone senior Mason Cavalier in preseason while he recovers from a concussion. Another player underwent surgery for a medical issue and remains out of the lineup, leaving the Lakers with only eight healthy players.
“I don’t like to play zone, but for right now, I need to have kids not get tired and to stay out of foul trouble,” Larochelle said. “Better to play zone with seven kids than finish the game with four kids on the court.”
Wyatt Dellavalle, a 6-foot-3 junior center, and Ricky Thompson, a 6-1 sophomore guard/forward, are the Lakers’ only players taller than 5-10.
Rangeley will compensate by running the floor and playing hard-nosed defense when the numbers and the foul clock allow.
“The kids believe they can do it. That end of it has been an easy sell,” Larochelle said. “We’re going to be undersized, but we play hard, and we think we can pretty good defensively.”
Valley, Forest Hills and Greenville were a combined 45-9 a year ago and are expected to be the class of the league once again. Prep schools Hyde and NYA and independent North Haven amassed a total of 44 wins, making it a top-heavy regional tournament.