DIXFIELD – There has really been no easing into the basketball season for the Dirigo girls’ basketball team in recent years.

Two years in a row, the Cougars had to open against a highly-touted Wiscasset team. Last year, Dirigo opened with a young up-and-coming Monmouth club. In all three occasions, the Cougars were up for the challenge and there was nothing different for Dirigo Saturday night.

The Cougars hosted a Monmouth team expected to be one of the top squads in the Mountain Valley Conference, but Dirigo seized the early lead and never relented in a 61-46 victory.

“The schedule maker hasn’t been very nice to us with the teams we’ve had to face in the season opener,” said Dirigo coach Gavin Kane. “I thought our effort was super. We played with a lot of energy. We played very aggressively on the defensive side.”

Dirigo opened a six-point lead in the opening quarter and had the advantage in double digits by halftime. Though Monmouth managed to keep pace, the Mustangs couldn’t get the Cougars off their game.

“If you get behind on them, they’re a calculating team,” said Monmouth assistant coach Scott Wing, filling in for Rick Amero, who missed the game because of illness. “They pick their spots. It’s hard to come back against a team that plays solid defense and doesn’t hurt themselves offensively.”

Though Dirigo graduated its two post powers and nearly 27 points from its offense, the Cougars had plenty of scoring to go around. Nikki Kaulback came off the bench to lead Dirigo with a career-high 16 points. Shannon Daley added 13 while Katherine Gagne and Abby Fenstermacher chipped in nine and eight points respectively.

“We had great balanced scoring,” said Kane. “That’s going to be important for us. We’re not going to have the same high scorer night in and night out.”

Both teams were plagued by foul trouble early on. The Cougars took advantage of the tight officiating with eight straight free throws in the second quarter, shooting 10-for-14 in the half.

It was a Kaulback 3-pointer and a free throw that opened a 10-4 lead in the opening quarter. Dirigo then used a 9-2 run in the second to build the lead to 11.

“A good lead was pretty important,” said Kaulback. “That’s what we wanted – to get ahead.”

Dirigo’s offense was sparked by the outside shot. Kaulbach, Katie Hutchinson, Gagne and Daley all hit perimeter shots to build the early lead.

After a Hutchinson jumper early in the second quarter, Megan Russell hit a free throw and followed that with a backdoor basket on a Kaulback pass. After a Jill Armstrong bucket for the Mustangs, Daley hit two free throws and then hit a jumper for a 21-10 lead.

“That’s what we talked about in the pregame,” said Wing. “We had to be settled early on and couldn’t allow them to jump on us and get that panic going. They did a little bit.”

Monmouth got a spark from Brittaney Scirica with nine points in the second quarter. She led the Mustangs with 15 while Jenn Lola added nine.

The Mustangs couldn ‘t overcome the early deficit though. Dirigo’s aim defensively was to throw the Mustangs off and the Cougars did just that.

Monmouth turned the ball over 17 times in the first half and Dirigo held Barrett and Lola to just two points in the opening half.

“For the most part we did a pretty good job of that,” said Kane. “We were able to limit a couple of their good scorers .”

Monmouth was able to get within eight once in the second half but couldn’t get the Cougars out of sync enough to make a rally.

“It was really important not to get rattled,” said Kaulback. “We really had to stay focused and keep our head in it mentally.”

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