GRAY — When Maria Valente reached high school, her life as a basketball player changed.

When she first learned the game, she was the taller player. She could rule the inside and be potent in the post.

But when she was a freshman at Gray-New Gloucester, she didn’t have the size advantage any longer. If anything, she was at a disadvantage. Many of the post players in the formidable Western Maine Conference were bigger and stronger than she was.

“In middle school and a little before that, I was always bigger than everybody else,” the 5-foot, 9-inch junior said. “So when I played, I was mostly a post player. That’s why I’m good inside, but as I got to high school, there were bigger players — juniors and seniors. So I got to practice my shooting game and my outside game.”

Valente is now a well-rounded talent that can do it all for the Patriots. She can play inside and battle the best of them, or bring the ball up and make plays from the outside.

“Coming in, I loved playing in the post better, but I definitely, at this point, like being a shooting guard better,” she said. “I like it more because driving to the basket is one of my strengths especially when teams are weak defensively and I can take it in the lane. That’s why I like being a shooting guard better now.”

That suits the Patriots. Valente took on a sizable role this year with a young Gray-NG team. The Patriots graduated three starters last year and had post player Steph Greaton out with an injury early in the season. That left Valente as the lone returning starter and the player with the most experience.

“I knew I had to sort of guide the team, but I also knew that the people around me were very hard workers and also great basketball players that could also help me out,” Valente said.

Her role was to not only to help lead a Patriots team with four freshmen, but also help integrate the rest of the team.

“This year is really all about teamwork and that’s what we do well,” Valente said.

It put greater expectations on her, but that’s nothing new. She stepped into the lineup as a freshman and played a prominent role from the start. Since then, she’s been a player the Patriots could rely on.

“What’s great about Maria is that from day one, you could hang anything on her,” said Gray-NG coach Mike Andreasen. “You can hang the weight of the world around her shoulders. She may not be able to do it, but she’ll never complain about it. She’ll do it with a smile. As she’s gotten older, I’ve given her more weight, and she’s taken it. She’s great.”

She leads the team in just about every category and is among the WMC leaders in points (14.4), rebounds (8.8) and steals (4.4) per game.

“She’s the one you want to have the ball,” Andreasen said. “Something is going to happen when she has the ball and on defense, she will always be around the ball because she never takes a play off. She’s all the time. She’s 110 percent.”

It’s an example she has set for the rest of the team and her teammates have followed her lead. Though there is no sophomore class, the team has been able to close the gap between the upperclassmen and the freshmen.

Players like Greaton, Grace Ferguson and Julia Martell, the only returning seniors, and junior Zoe Adams are the only other regulars from a year ago, and they’re all taking on larger roles. They’ve all rallied together to take ownership of their team.

“It’s a lot of pressure, but I know I have other teammates behind me,” Valente said. “So if I’m having a bad game or if people are targeting me, there are other players that can take the weight off my shoulders.”

Though the team has faced some growing pains, the Patriots are 8-5 and ranked fifth in Western B. The upperclassmen have stepped into their larger roles while the newcomers have fit in and contributed nicely.

“The thing about this year is that there’s such a big gap between classes,” Valente said. “There’s juniors and seniors but there’s no sophomores. What we’re trying to do is have good team chemistry and it’s going very well.”

Valente learned from the upperclassmen that led the team when she first arrived in high school and has tried to be an example of those lessons learned.

“When I came in as a freshman we had Haley Cote and Michele Dehetre,” Valente said. “There were some tough players and in practice they’d work you hard. It just made me a better player.

“I’m usually all over the place and going really fast all the time, but they really taught me that sometimes you have to slow down.”

When Valente was at the foul line recently, she missed the first free throw. Before Andreasen had the chance to say anything, Valente let him know she had it under control.

 “I started to say something and she looked over at me and said, ‘Yeah, I got it,'” Andreasen said. “Then she knocked down the second one.”

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