AUBURN — Shooting hoops in the gym was fun, but Tyler Smithgall of Winthrop felt there was something missing.

Itching, like many high school graduates, to get away from home, Smithgall enrolled at the University of Maine’s flagship campus in Orono. A standout basketball player for the Ramblers, he never stopped playing the game, even though he was not playing for the Black Bears. He spent time in the gym, playing intramurals, and practicing the game he loved.

That’s where Central Maine Community College AD and basketball coach Dave Gonyea found him.

Three seasons later, Smithgall and his teammates at CMCC are fresh off an appearance at the USCAA national tournament, and, with a majority of their team returning, the Mustangs appear ready to make a return appearance this season.

“I feel like last year helped us out,” Smithgall said. “People expected us to go to nationals last year, and we made it. Now that we’ve experienced that, we can handle it better. Now that we’re expected to compete at nationals, I think we know more about what to expect.”

Smithgall is a focal point of the Mustangs’ offense, one of four returning starters, and he nearly missed his opportunity to be at the Auburn school at all.

“In high school, when he was at Winthrop, we wanted him then,” Gonyea said. “He chose, like a lot of kids do, he wanted to get away, and he went up to Orono, to the University of Maine.”

Another Winthrop player, Nate Damm, was interested, and with a little help, convinced Gonyea he belonged as a Mustang.

“Nate’s mother came up to me and said, ‘Well, what about Nate?'” Gonyea said. “Our program is to the point now where we can’t just take everybody anymore. But we took a look, and we brought him in, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”

Not only did Gonyea get a solid player in Damm, but a year later, Smithgall came calling.

“Nate told me that Tyler, his best friend, had that itch to play again,” Gonyea said. “I talked to guys I knew up at Maine, and they told me he’d been playing every day.”

When he arrived at the CMCC campus, Gonyea explained to Smithgall that being away from the game for a year might be a tough obstacle to overcome, at least initially.

“It did take a little while,” Gonyea said, “but he improved. Boy, did he improve, and he just keeps getting better and better and better.”

Smithgall last season was a USCAA All-American, no easy feat for a player at CMCC.

“The league we play in, there are about 70 schools, and only about 10 two-year schools,” Gonyea said. “Most of our schedule is against four-year schools, but when you get guys in here for their third year, you start to level the playing field a little bit more.”

Smithgall will play a third year this season.

“His claim to fame is his work ethic,” Gonyea said. “He works hard, night in and night out. We had a tournament here last week, and the coach from one of the teams came up to me and told me he’d never, at this level, seen a kid at 6-4, do what Tyler does on the floor.

“Everywhere we go, he just wins people over,” Gonyea said.

Smithgall is, of course, just one piece to the CMCC puzzle. Starting point guard Matt Sceviour will begin the season on the sideline nursing an ankle injury, but Cam Angell, formerly of Leavitt Area High School, has stepped in to provide some scoring on the inside in his absence.

A stronger, leaner Matt Lyons of Mountain valley High School returns to provide some muscle in the middle, and Oxford Hills product Arsenio Santamaria came on strong late last season and should figure into the offense.

Point guard Eric Goodwin of Gardiner, Gonyea’s top recruit, will most likely see starting time until Sceviour returns.

“Last year, we went to the national tournament happy to be there,” Gonyea said. “This year, we want to go back and win some games. We have the players with the ability and the work ethic to do that.”

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