Jade Perry, left, Grace Fontaine and head coach Chris Cifelli watch a scrimmage from the sideline during the first day of practice for the Edward Little High School girl’s basketball team on Monday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

AUBURN — High school basketball players, coaches and fans anticipated Monday’s first day of practice for the winter sports season across the state, but no more than at Edward Little High School, the home of two defending Class AA state champions.

“I had a countdown going for quite a while,” said Edward Little senior Jade Perry, one of three returning starters from the girls’ team. “We’re really excited to get in the gym.”

“I’ve been looking forward to this since the last day of last season,” said Edward Little senior Wol Maiwen, one of two remaining starters from the boys’ squad.

The last day of last season was March 2, when the EL girls and boys hoisted the gold ball within hours of each other inside Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena. It was the first state title in the girls’ history, and the first for the boys since 1946.

This season, the goal for both teams is the same, win another title. But the message from their respective coaches is different.

Girls’ coach Chris Cifelli wants his team to understand that staying on top of the mountain is more difficult than the climb to the top. Boys’ coach Mike Adams wants his team to think of it as having another mountain to climb.

Both teams open the regular season against Oxford Hills on Dec. 7.

Cifelli said he’s prepared to remind his team all season that it will have a target on its back as the reigning champions.

“The effort last year was unbelievable to win one, but you almost have to come back and dig down a little bit more and find something a little bit different that can keep you hungry for it and not being satisfied,” he said. “And knowing that everybody is going to give you their best shot every single night is important.”

The Red Eddies got a taste of that during summer basketball, when it was clear opponents knew when they were squaring off against the champions.

“Everybody was gunning for us,” Perry said.

The girls have the majority of their starters and scoring back in Perry, senior Grace Fontaine and junior Hannah Chaput, who came off the bench last year. They do need to replace the leadership and steadiness of four graduated seniors who Cifelli said had a calming influence on last year’s team.

“We return almost all of our scoring. That’s a luxury,” Cifelli said. “Hopefully, we’ll find someone to step into the role of being a leader, being that calming influence when things are getting a little bit crazy on the floor. And I think we do have that. I really think we have some girls who are ready to step into that.”

The girls gelled at the right time last year. After going 11-7 during the regular season, they found the edge that allowed them to win three of their four tournament games by three or fewer points.

Fontaine said the way the Eddies played late last season has her contemplating the possibilities for this season.

“During the playoffs, I think that we played a lot as a team rather than individually,” Fontaine said. “We just work better together when we play together.”

“Personally I’m a lot more excited because of what I saw we could do last year,” she added. “I think we can do the same thing this year.”

Adams didn’t want his team to change its approach going into this season, noting some advice he got from one of his peers, Brunswick coach Todd Hanson.

“He said something great to me this summer: ‘You’re not defending anything. It’s not about that. It’s about going out and doing what you guys do,'” Adams said.

For Adams’ teams, that always means putting maximum effort into summer program, then setting the tone for the season from the first day of practice.

“It’s huge. You’ve got to set it early because the season comes quick,” said junior Austin Brown, Adams’ other returning starter. “Whatever happens this week is the start of what’s going to happen in February and hopefully March.”

Like the girls, the boys will need to replace a heady point guard in Tyler Morin. Unlike the girls, they also lost significant scoring punch with the graduation of Darby Shea and Ibn Khalid. 

Maiwen, who was named the most valuable player of last year’s AA North tournament, believes the Eddies have plenty of eager candidates to fill the void.

“During the summer we had a lot of success with our younger guys. Our sophomores who are turning into juniors are going to open a lot of eyes,” Maiwen said. “This is their opportunity.”

“We’re going to have our growing pains because some of those kids are juniors and they haven’t been in a varsity game yet,” Adams said. “But hopefully, like last year, everybody is going to be playing their best at the end.”


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