Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of previews of Franklin- and Kennebec-county teams in the Sun Journal’s coverage area that have decided to play this winter.   

Winning back-to-back state championships isn’t just twice as nice as winning one. It allows for yet another group of young men to step up as standard-bearers.

Winthrop graduated five seniors, including four starters, from its 2020 Class C state championship team. That class took the bar from eight seniors who had set it the year before and raised it for another gold ball. Now it’s been handed off to a quintet of seniors who have had two years to study how it’s done.

Winthrop’s Gavin Perkins drives against Waynflete’s Dominick Campbell during the Ramblers’ Class C South title game win last February in Augusta. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Senior Gavin Perkins already showed he could be a spark plug and defensive menace and was a Mountain Valley Conference all-star as the only junior in last year’s starting lineup. This year, he’ll shoulder more scoring responsibilities, and not just the ones that call for him to put the ball in the basket.

“I think Gavin is going to take a huge step in terms of scoring the basketball and distributing the basketball. He’s probably going to be one of the best players in the MVC,” Ramblers coach Todd MacArthur said. “We expect big things from him, expect the leadership and scoring and running the show for us.”

Senior forward Noah Grube was the first big man off the bench last year. An expanded role in 2021 will just give him more opportunities to show what he can do.

“That’s one kid that can handle the pressure, kind of the silent type but loves the moment,” MacArthur said. “He has all of the ability in the world, he was just behind very good players last year in the post. He thrived whenever he got his opportunity last year. Now, there’s no one in front of him and we’re expecting big things out of him down low.”

With senior forward Ian Steele, who MacArthur said is “a high energy player” vital to helping the Ramblers turn defense into offense, and junior guard Logan Baird, another reserve last year whose development has accelerated with his growing comfort level on the court, the Ramblers have plenty of varsity experience and balance.

Seniors Noah Dunn and Sam Fuller, junior Andrew Foster and sophomore Robbie Feeney will provide frontcourt depth. The backcourt help for Perkins and Baird is all sophomores, so their development will be important.

MONMOUTH MUSTANGS

Monmouth Academy boys basketball coach Wade Morrill stepped down from his other title as the school’s athletic director last year in part so he could focus more on his coaching duties. Morrill knows first-hand what a complicated mess COVID-19 has created for administrators trying to operate in the athletic portion of education, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have to navigate the unpredictability in the sole role of head coach.

The twists and turns started with the Mustangs missing the first five days of full practice due to school restrictions. Hopes for more luck with the regular season have already been diminished because the 12-game schedule the school had set forth is half-full of schools that are in currently designated yellow counties in the state’s color-coded system, meaning those teams can’t practice, let alone play.

Winthrop’s Noah Grube, left, chases after Monmouth’s Hayden Fletcher during a game last year in Winthrop. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Their first two games are either cancelled or questionable due to COVID-19 restrictions, so the Mustangs may still have some waiting around to do.

“Right now, if nothing changes with the color-coding system, we are looking at opening our first regular-season contest next Thursday against Hall-Dale,” Morrill said.

Fortunately the Mustangs were able to play a scrimmage against Spruce Mountain on Tuesday night, an eight-point loss that Morrill and his charges had no intention of treating like a typical scrimmage.

“We had some good things, we had some bright sports, but we just didn’t do any one thing well enough,” he said.

Morrill told his team to disregard the calendar and consider that scrimmage the equivalent of the traditional Friday-after-Thanksgiving preseason tip-off during normal seasons. But he’s also reminded them time is of the essence while continuing to expect the unexpected.

“As far as game-planning, it’s kind of all out the window, because you don’t know who your next opponent is going to be, you don’t know when you’re going to play them or where you’re going to play them,” he said. “We’re just taking the time to enjoy being in the gym, enjoy working on basketball and trying to focus on the way we’d like to play and doing it well.”

In order to do it well, a number of players will have to figure out new roles quickly.

“I have two bigs and a bunch of guards I’m trying to make forwards,” Morrill said.

Seniors TJ Lewis and Cam Armstrong and junior Hayden Fletcher set the right kind of tone for a large and promising sophomore class during the off-season.

“The core group of our returning guys really dedicated to the gym, so they’ve gotten a lot stronger,” Morrill said.

“We plan on playing a lot of sophomores this year, with our three seniors and Hayden kind of offering that upper-classmen presence and we’ve got a couple of juniors that are pretty strong and pretty athletic,” Morrill said. “It’s really going to come down to developing our young players and continuing to build on our core players.

Guard Manny Calder and forwards Hunter Frost and Gavin Willette gained some valuable varsity experience with roles off of the bench as freshmen last year. Morrill is looking forward to see how they react to expanded roles as sophomores.

“They’re going to have an adjustment period,” Morrill said. “It’s just understanding the urgency with which you have to play and to compete. Every night could be the last game we get this year.”

“I like our team. The kids are working hard and have a lot of positive energy,” he added. “We’re pretty athletic and have good quickness. We don’t have a ton of size, but we’re hoping to utilize quickness to make up for that.”

MT. ABRAM ROADRUNNERS

Mt. Abram was a team on the rise in Class C South in 2019-20, winning 13 games to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1999, then throwing a scare into tournament stalwart Boothbay before a five-point loss ended its season.

The Roadrunners graduated MVC All-Star Nate Luce, their leader and the person coach Dustin Zamboni relied on to help establish the culture that would turn things around. But they return a speedy, dynamic backcourt that had the Augusta Civic Center crowd buzzing in their brief stay there last year and should continue their climb up the conference standings.

“We will be faster and more athletic than years past,” Zamboni said.

That will send chills up the spines of the opponents the Roadrunners left in the dust with their ability to get from point A to point B faster than just about anyone.

Seniors Kenyon Pillsbury and Nate Warren and sophomore Kaden Pillsbury will set the pace again this year. Opponents will likely have to pick their poison among that trio on any given night. Whoever gets the call to pick up the slack will do it with an attacking style.

Replacing Luce and Jackson Masterson in the frontcourt will be key. Both were paramount to setting the Roadrunners in motion with defensive rebounds. Senior forwards Parker Ross and Hayden Deckard-Madore and junior Trevor Phelps will have to hold down the paint.

“We have some big shoes to fill on the rebounding end and will have to make adjustments to our gameplay on both sides of the ball,” Zamboni said. “We have a strong group that plays well as a team. When faced with adversity, this group is tough, still continues to work and won’t back down.”

MT. BLUE COUGARS

Tuesday night’s surreal 4-OT 94-91 win over Lawrence left plenty of room for learning moments for Mt. Blue coach Troy Norton’s young team.

Most important of all of the instruction and/or reminders the thriller provided over the course of 48 minutes was also perhaps the easiest lesson.

“Conditioning is definitely key, especially with the masks,” Norton said. “We just basically outlasted (Lawrence). We’ve got some hard-working, athletic kids.”

It was a crash course on varsity basketball for most of Norton’s roster, with the exception of returning starters Jacob Farnham and Zach Poisson, who the coach estimated played all but one minute of the game on the court.

Jacob Farnham of Mt. Blue puts up a shot between Ben Sirois, left, and Cole Morin of Leavitt during the fourth quarter in Turner last season. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We’re really young and it showed in the first half (against Lawrence),” Norton said. “We’re athletic. We’re not big. I mean, Farnham’s our biggest kid and he played point guard for us last year.”

Farnham, now a 6-foot-4 forward, averaged 14 points and was second in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference with five steals per game last year. He should be one of the top players in the KVAC if he finds more consistency night after night, although it would be too much to ask him to duplicate the triple-double he put up against Lawrence (23 points, 12 rebounds, 10 steals).

“He’s just a great kid. He’d literally be in the gym 12 hours a day if he could,” Norton said. “His biggest role this year is going to be leadership because we’ve got all these kids.”

Poisson, who cracked the starting lineup as a freshman towards the end of last year, returns to anchor the backcourt.

Beyond Poisson, the perimeter-oriented Cougars have good but unproven depth in the backcourt. Sophomore Chandler Briggs has the shooting stroke to be a big part of the offense, and Hayden Dippner, an athletic transfer from Pennsylvania who hit one of three game-extending buzzer-beaters in the opener, will have even more of an impact as he settles in.

SPRUCE MOUNTAIN PHOENIX

It isn’t just the masks that will make Spruce Mountain virtually unrecognizable on the court in 2021.

Normally a guard-oriented, up-tempo, long-range bomb squad, the Phoenix are flipping their focus to the frontcourt after graduating MVC Player of the Year Brandon Frey and Owen Bryant.

“It’s a brand-new team with some new faces and no guards,” coach Scott Bessey said. “It’s going to be a grind.”

A new triangle offense built to get the most out of Spruce’s shifting strength takes time to master. With the tempo turned down and fewer opportunities to score, the Phoenix will need to be efficient. Coming out of a truncated preseason (the regular season starts against Mt. Abram on Thursday), they are still several steps away from efficient.

“We’ve got to completely remake ourselves,” Bessey said. “We’ve got no 3-point shooting for the first time in my 10 years coaching. But we will defend, and that will be what gives us a chance to be competitive.”

Spruce Mountain’s Lorne Grondin puts up a floater as he drives to the basket during a playoff game at the Portland Expo last season. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Anyone who has watched Spruce Mountain basketball for any length of time knows they will be competitive. And they could present the smaller teams they face with a number of problems with a front line led by 6-foot-2 senior Lorne Grondin, a four-year varsity player, 6-foot-2 junior Jayden Perrault, and a pair of 6-foot-3 transfers, senior Bradley Shamba and junior Camden Phillips.

“Our best offense is probably going to be off offensive rebounds,” Bessey said. “And Bradley is going to be a big part of that. He’s relentless on the offensive boards.”

Owen Bryant, a 6-foot-2 junior guard and returning starter, is moving into the backcourt to solidify what is an otherwise inexperienced group. Senior Jordan Blanche, junior Cullan Johnson and sophomore Lucas Towers will have a lot of say whether the Phoenix can develop more balance.

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