The Cheverus, Deering, Portland and Waynflete boys’ basketball teams all have stars in their eyes at the start of the 2009-10 campaign.
In Western A, the city teams figure to be in the middle of what could be the most wide-open field in memory. Westbrook, Windham, South Portland and defending state champ Thornton Academy are all highly touted and several other schools are capable of beating anyone on any given night.
The Stags won the 2007-08 title and if awards were given for regular season dominance, they would have cleaned up last winter after a perfect and dominant year. But Cheverus wasn’t the same team in the tournament, getting upset by eventual state champ Thornton Academy, 47-41, in the semifinals to finish 19-1.
While the Stags lost standout Mick DiStasio and several other key players, they should be on the short list of title hopefuls again this season.
Leading the way is sensational senior Indiana Faithfull, a reigning first-team all-star, now in his third season at point guard.
Widely recognized as the best point guard in the state (he led the league in assists and was fourth in steals last winter), Faithful will be called on to shoot more and he’s capable of lighting it up on a nightly basis. He averaged 12.2 points per game a year ago and opened with 15 in an 80-35 home win over Noble Friday night. Sophomore Louie DiStasio (10 points versus Noble) and senior Kyle Randall are also dangerous from the perimeter. Junior Peter Gwilym (Cheverus’ Fall Male Athlete of the Year after leading the football team to the regional final) will also be a force.
A trio of newcomers will also make noise. The biggest addition is Alex Furness, a junior transfer from Wells, who has the potential to be a star. He had 12 points in his first game in a Stags’ uniform. Junior center Griffin Brady (who played JV last year) and 6-foot-7 freshman Matt Cimino will also step right in and contribute. Ninth-year coach Bob Brown always preaches strong defense, which often goes overlooked (Cheverus was first in the league last year) and that should be a strong point again.
The Stags are always in the mix, but this year, they’ll be playing with a chip on their shoulder, looking to avenge last season’s early ouster. If Cheverus can stay healthy, there’s a very good chance this it’s still the gold standard in the Southern Maine Activities Association and possibly all of Class A. While the Stags likely won’t go undefeated again, they will be in great position come February to make a legitimate run at another championship.
“We’re good, but I don’t know if we’re good enough or strong enough,” Brown said. “We have some nice players. We’re very long, but not very bulky. We’ll have to be aggressive and agile. Indy will have to score more than he has in the past. There are a lot of good teams in the league this year.”
The Stags faced a stern test at Westbrook and play host to Portland Tuesday of next week in a compelling early-season showdown.
Speaking of the Bulldogs, they enjoyed an inspirational postseason ride last winter. If people didn’t previously appreciate coach Joe Russo’s nonpareil skill at getting a team to come together over the course of a season, they had to notice what might have been his piece de resistance last season. The Bulldogs, inconsistent all season, lost their final two regular season contests before pulling it all together in the tournament, rising from the No. 6 seed to the regional final after upset wins over South Portland and Westbrook. A 49-43 setback to Thornton Academy ended the year at 15-7.
After graduating big men Eddie Bogdanovich and Joe Violette, and losing James Ek as a transfer to Thornton Academy, Portland will have to start over again. It suffered a painful 61-58 buzzer-beater loss at Thornton Academy in the opener Friday, but don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs are right back in the thick of things come February.
This year’s team has great senior leadership. Koang Thok (16th in the SMAA in scoring last winter with an 11.9 points per game average and 10th in 3-point accuracy) is on the brink of becoming an elite guard. He was a third-team all-star a year ago and figures to turn heads this season (he had 21 points in the first game). Senior Wally Stover, another guard, came alive during the tournament and is primed to have a strong season. He’ll improve on his 7.3 ppg from last year. Senior Joe Zukowski, a forward, could also score his share of points (5.4 ppg,3.6 rebounds last winter) and will help out on the boards and play strong defense. Sophomore Will DeFanti, an All-Rookie team selection a year ago, returns for his second season at point guard (he averaged 2.5 assists per outing last winter). As always, the Bulldogs have a bevy of newcomers who will fit into the equation, including senior Jake Alexander, who spent most of his time on the JV team in 2008-09 and is coming off a monster football campaign. He could help replace Bogdanovich’s scoring and rebounding prowess.
With most of the preseason attention focused on Cheverus, South Portland and Westbrook, Portland can take its time becoming a championship contender, a strong possibility if the Bulldogs can stay healthy and Russo is able to work his magic.
“I think we’ll be in the mix,” said Russo, now in his 20th season at the Portland helm. “I’m excited to have guys back who have been in the program for four years. That’s a good nucleus. We also have a lot of new faces. We’re struggling with depth and size. One of our obstacles will be replacing Eddie and Joe’s rebounding. We hope to make up for it with quickness. We have athletic guards. I think we’re in the top five. Maybe higher.”
The Rams of Deering aren’t viewed in quite as bright a light as Cheverus or Portland, but should not be overlooked. Last year, Deering came within a whisker of upsetting Thornton Academy in the semifinals before losing, 51-48, to wind up 12-7.
The Rams will miss the graduated Khadar Abbas and Ronald Abwoch, but return some good players and have added some promising newcomers. This winter, Deering’s offensive attack is led by senior Eddie Tirabassi (8.4 ppg last winter) and juniors Dennis Ross (6.9), Jamie Ross (5.0) and Nick Colucci. Junior Rico Augustino runs the show at point guard (sophomore Patrick Green was supposed to fill that role, but tore his ACL in the summer). Junior Jackson Frey is also capable of doing damage from the guard spot. Senior Sam Coyne will provide size down low. Sophomore guard John Amabile has potential (witness his 30 points versus Bonny Eagle in a 64-51 season-opening win Friday), as does junior John Hughes, a transfer from Westbrook.
Deering has boasted its share of athletes in recent seasons, but hasn’t mastered the team dynamic. Coach Dan LeGage is confident this year’s team will be more unselfish. If so, should be able to hold its own against everyone in a very deep and talented SMAA. The Rams might not have a gaudy record or seed come February, but as was the case last year, whoever draws Deering in the postseason better be wary. This team will once again be very dangerous when the stakes are at their highest.
“We’re undersized, but we’re athletic,” said LeGage, now in his eighth year. “The key for us this year is to play unselfishly. The kids need to buy into the team concept. We’re primarily juniors. It’s time for them to understand that. We have some athletic kids who know how to play basketball. If we play well, we can compete with top tier teams. We hope to find our identity by tournament time.”
Deering’s next big challenge is Dec. 22 at Thornton Academy.
In Western C, Waynflete is hoping to ride the momentum from it’s surprising trip to Augusta a year ago. The Flyers upset Boothbay in a prelim, then lost 65-38 to Dirigo in the quarterfinals to wind up 7-13. This season, Waynflete will sneak up on no one. The Flyers are well-equipped to get the best their opponents can dish out, having just lost just one player to graduation (it was a big loss, however, last Winter’s Male Athlete of the Year, Hassan Jeylani).
Waynflete boasts an offensive attack led by senior John Malia (who had 13 points in a season-opening 39-22 win at NYA Friday night), a first-team league all-star, who was third in the Western Maine Conference in scoring a year ago with a 17.7 points per game average. Seniors Josiah Baker-Connick, Sam Fillinger, Cecil Gardner and Bill Ngoal (14 points versus NYA), are all seasoned and will be bolstered by the addition of athletic senior Sam Cleaves. Juniors Alex Hadiaris, Sam Murphy and Joe Veroneau will look to continue their growth, as will sophomores Abshir Horor and Mitch Newlin, who saw time as freshmen.
Speaking of freshmen, Abukar Adan, Max Belleau, Jack Cutler and Paul Runyambo will do their best to pitch in. Waynflete again faces a tough schedule, which includes some top Western B contenders, but this time around, the Flyers are better equipped to meet any challenge. Look for this to be a very good team by season’s end. A return trip to Augusta is likely.
“We’re returning four players who started at the end of last year and will be looking to find the right players to round out the rotation,” said sixth-year coach Rich Henry. “We’ve got some depth at a few positions, but will be challenged to replace Hassan’s leadership. If we’re able to find the right balance and play consistently, we should be okay. I’m very pleased with the freshman that are new to the program. It’s sort of funny how things work, we went from a fairly young team last year to a supposedly experienced team this year, and our success will be dictated by that experience translating into consistent play.”
Waynflete faces a huge test Friday night when it hosts Western B favorite Falmouth.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland senior Koang Thok is one of the standout players in the city and the state this winter. The Bulldogs, along with Cheverus, Deering and Waynflete, are hoping for big things in 2009-10.