BUCKFIELD — Ryan Wilkins was prepared to give up coaching basketball, at least for a short while.
Wilkins completed a three-year stint with the girls’ basketball team at the Spruce Mountain Middle School, and decided to step away from the game.
“Toward the end of last year, I decided I wasn’t going to go back,” said Wilkins, the principal at the Hartford-Sumner Elementary School. “I was working down here in this region, and it was too far to get back for practices and catching buses.”
That break turned out to be brief.
The open varsity girls’ basketball position a piqued his interest.
“I had a couple of parents mention to me that they thought this position might open up,” Wilkins said. “They asked me if I’d be interested and asked me to consider it.”
When the job opened, Wilkins looked into it, and applied.
“The next thing I know, I’m doing it,” Wilkins said. “I enjoy the coaching piece of it. I’ve missed it. The middle school piece was kind of doing for me what I needed it to do. It gave me something to do in the winter. I didn’t really want to give it up, but at the same time, I knew I had to do something else closer to work. This met that criteria.”
Wilkins last coached varsity basketball back in the 1990s. He had a brief stint with the Livermore Falls girls’ team, and finished the decade coaching the boys’ team.
He later coached at the Livermore Falls Middle School. He was an assistant for a year, and then coached the team on his own for a year. His intent was to be there while his daughter was playing, but after she moved on to high school, he stuck around to coach the Spruce Mountain Middle School.
“I never left the middle school because I saw it as a way to keep supporting that program,” Wilkins said. “So I stayed there three more years, which was three more than I’d originally planned for.”
Though he hasn’t been out of coaching, returning to the varsity level is still an adjustment. He takes over a varsity program with a rich basketball history in a conference full of teams with great traditions — Rangeley, Valley, Forest Hills and Richmond.
“There’s more preparation in trying to get your team prepared to play opponents,” Wilkins said. “In middle school, you just show up and make do with what you have. There isn’t as much of a preparation aspect.”
Because his Bucks team is so young, there isn’t a significant difference from what he was accustomed to at the middle school level. Buckfield, which was 2-15 last year and 13-76 over the past five seasons, is still building.
“It’s a challenge,” said Wilkins, who worked with the team during the summer. “I’m excited about the challenge we’re about to embark on. We haven’t had a lot of success here at Buckfield. I’m excited to be part of, hopefully, changing things and getting things moving in the right direction.”
One of the things that enticed him about this opportunity is his role as principal in the elementary school.
“Where does the youth program start?” he asked rhetorically. “It starts with the younger kids. I’m the principal of the elementary school. So I’m in a really good position to start forging some of those relationships and getting some of those kids to start playing.”
The Bucks don’t have a wealth of experience. Naudia Wesley is the lone returning senior. Much of last year’s team was built around sophomores and freshmen. Juniors Alexis Bennett, Ashley Campbell, Brianna Damon and Alyssa Therriault and sophomores Kali Litchfield and Abigail Shields are a little more seasoned, but still learning.
Though many of the players have had some level of success in soccer and softball, they’re still developing on the court.
“I think it’s pretty much a confidence thing,” Wilkins said. “When you don’t have many positive experiences with something, it’s hard to really feel good about yourself.”
Wilkins isn’t stressing wins and losses this season. His focus is on learning and improving. He wants the girls to be able to play 32 minutes and be competitive. If the Bucks make progress there, the rest will follow.
“We’re just trying to improve every day, individually and hopefully, with that, we’ll get better as a team,” Wilkins said. “There’s obviously room for improvement, but I think we’ll start to make some strides.”