City hoops teams primed for tournament glory

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Boys’ and girls’ basketball teams from the city of Portland will make their presence at felt at the Portland Expo, Cumberland County Civic Center and Augusta Civic Center in the days to come.

The fun begins Friday night with a pair of Western Class A boys’ semifinals at the Expo. Fifth-ranked Portland, which has soared from nowhere the past two weeks to become a legitimate contender, will battle No. 4 South Portland at 7 p.m. Immediately following that contest, top-ranked, undefeated and defending state champion Cheverus takes on upset-minded No. 8 Marshwood.

The Western A quarterfinals culminate Saturday night as sixth-ranked Deering, one of the most dangerous low seeds in memory, meets up with No. 6 Thornton Academy at 7:30 p.m. Second-ranked Bonny Eagle and No. 7 Westbrook square off in the other contest.

Monday, in the Western A girls’ quarterfinals, also at the Expo, second-ranked McAuley faces No. 7 South Portland at 3:30 p.m. (No. 3 Gorham and No. 6 Windham meet first, at 2 p.m.). At 7 p.m., fourth-seed Cheverus and No. 5 Sanford do battle. Top-ranked Deering closes the proceedings at 8:30 p.m., when it faces either No. 8 Thornton Academy or No. 9 Bonny Eagle (the Golden Trojans and Scots square off in a preliminary round game Wednesday).

Both Waynflete teams will make the trip to Augusta.

The boys, coming off a spectacular regular season, which earned them the No. 4 seed in Western Class C, face No. 5 Wiscasset Monday at 7 p.m.

The girls, ranked second, will meet against either No. 7 St. Dom’s or No. 10 North Yarmouth Academy (those teams played a prelim Tuesday) in the quarterfinals Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m.

Here’s an in-depth look at the matchups:

Boys

When Portland lost, 70-43, at Cheverus Jan. 29, the young and struggling Bulldogs were 6-7 and appeared out of playoff contention. Then, they roared to life, winning their final five games to wind up 11-7, capped by victories last week over playoff-bound host South Portland (59-54) and visiting Deering (52-39). Junior Peter Donato scored 18 points versus the Red Riots, while junior Mike Herrick had 25 against the Rams.

“This team has come so far. So far,” said Herrick. “At the beginning of the season, we were going to be lucky to win six or seven games. Now we end the regular season and we’re 11-7. A lot of the underclassmen stepped up. They matured quickly.”

“We were 6-7 and we just talked about finishing strong and making it a respectable year,” said longtime coach Joe Russo. “Going in fifth is beyond our expectations. It’s been enjoyable. A very successful season.”

The Bulldogs beat 12-6 South Portland twice this winter (the other was a 80-71 triple overtime epic at home on Jan. 19). Two years ago, Portland lost both regular season meetings with the Red Riots, then won handily in the third meeting (72-49), in the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs are hoping history doesn’t repeat.

“We don’t want it to end with just one game,” said Russo. “It’s a difficult road ahead. South Portland had a great year. We sure know each other and seem to match up often and always have good games. The first obstacle for us to overcome is hearing, ‘It’s hard to beat a team three times.’ It’s important for young kids not to hear that and to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been successful against them and we know that it wasn’t luck. We played them tough.”

Since 1964, Portland has won six of the nine playoff meetings against South Portland.

Cheverus has now won 22 straight after barely being tested this regular season. The Stags did get a scare at Deering last Tuesday before holding on for a 43-36 triumph (junior Louie DiStasio led the way with 15 points). Friday, Cheverus dispatched visiting South Portland, 50-35 (DiStasio and sophomore Matt Cimino both had 13 points), to wind up 18-0.

“I’m happy with our season, but I don’t think we’re playing as well as we’re capable,” said Stags coach Bob Brown. “We’ve had good depth. That’s allowed us to overcome. We have one kid over 10 points-per-game. Then it’s a bunch of balance. Defensively, we seem to get the job done.”

Cheverus won against visiting Marshwood back on Feb. 3, 57-40 (DiStasio had 21 points in that one). The teams’ last playoff meeting was an epic in the 2005 semifinals (a 47-46 Stags’ victory). They also went to OT in the 2004 semis (where Cheverus prevailed, 46-43).

This time around, the Stags will take the 10-8 Hawks seriously.

“They play a similar game, it’s like looking in a mirror,” said Brown. “I have mixed feelings since (Marshwood coach Mike Zamarchi) played for me at USM. I’m very pleased to see him get in. He does a great job. They’ll be tough. If we play like we’re capable, we should be all right.”

One note of interest, the Stags finished undefeated twice before under Brown (2005 and 2009), but failed to reach the state game each time. The program’s last perfect season came 30 years ago. Cheverus hasn’t repeated since 1981-82.

Deering, despite its 10-8 mark, has to be considered one of the most dangerous No. 6 seeds on record. The Rams were 9-4 after a 65-42 home romp over Portland on Jan. 28, but Deering went 1-4 down the stretch, capped by a frustrating 43-36 home loss to Cheverus (the game was tied with two minutes to go and sophomore Labson Abwoch led the Rams with 15 points) and Thursday’s 52-39 setback at Portland (junior Jon Amabile had a team-high eight points).

“My message to (the kids) is that we need to win one game to accomplish the goal of getting to the Civic Center,” said Rams coach Dan LeGage. “Our goals were simple, to make the playoffs and to get to the Civic Center for the semifinals. If we get over that hurdle, the makeup of our team suits that environment. We have bigs and good guard play. When they play well together, we can play with any team.”

Deering first will have to get through a 15-3 Thornton Academy team it’s all too familiar with. The Rams did enjoy a pivotal 50-48 home victory over the Golden Trojans back on Jan. 7 (Amabile had 22 points and Golden Trojans’ senior star Andrew Shaw was held to 13 points in that one). Deering has been eliminated from the tournament by Thornton Academy in two of the past four years. In the 2007 quarterfinals, the then-defending Class A champion Rams lost, 64-50. Two years ago, Deering almost upset the Golden Trojans in the quarterfinals, but fell, 51-48, and Thornton Academy went on to win the state championship.

“Our biggest thing is taking care of the ball and not having empty possessions,” LeGage said. “Shaw is a big-game player. We’ll have to focus on him. I feel like when we’re moving the ball and guys are active and looking to score, we can put points on the board. We have to keep TA off the boards and stop dribble penetration. Winning a quarterfinal would be huge for us.”

In Western C, the Waynflete Flyers didn’t even make the playoffs a year ago, but stunned just about everyone this winter by winning seven of their final eight games to boast an 11-5 record. Last week, the Flyers closed on a four-game run after holding off visiting Wells, 38-36 (senior Joe Veroneau had nine points), and Gould, 55-33 (Veroneau had 15, junior Jack Cutler 13).

“An area that I’ve been very pleased with is our defensive focus,” said Waynflete coach Rich Henry. “There have been games where we struggle offensively, but one of the areas that the kids seem to have bought into is the importance of solid defense. It’s kept us in games where we’re not shooting well. The other area that has been a bright spot are the ‘hustle’ plays, getting after loose balls, taking charges. That sort of thing starts with the leaders on the team, Joe and Alex (Hadiaris), but a number of players have bought into that approach. Mitch Newlin leads the team in charges taken and had a game where he took 5. Offensively, we’ve had pretty good balance. All of our starters have had double-digit scoring games and our bench players (particularly Max Belleau and Paul Runyambo) have provided a spark over the course of the season.”

The Flyers didn’t face 13-5 Wiscasset in the regular season. The teams have no playoff history. Waynflete hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals in a decade, but all bets are off with this squad.

“In terms of our tournament game, we were fortunate enough to scout Wiscasset, so we have some idea of how they like to play,” Henry said. “My impression is that they’re well coached and play typical hard-nosed Mountain Valley Conference basketball. Statistically, based on the seedings, this should be a good game. We’ll be working hard this week to prepare.”

Girls

Most pundits and fans felt that Deering and McAuley would be on a collision course for the title this winter and neither team has disappointed.

The Rams, the 2008 and 2009 Class A champions, who dropped a heartbreaker to Scarborough in last year’s regional final, have been paced by senior standout Kayla Burchill and have gotten huge contributions from the likes of senior Aarika Viola, juniors Emily Cole and Ella Ramonas and sophomores Marissa MacMillan and Chelsea Saucier.

Deering wound up grabbing the top seed with a 17-1 mark after wins last week over host Marshwood (51-30), visiting Portland (56-46) and host McAuley (38-35). Against the Hawks, Burchill had 20 points and MacMillan 11. Burchill had 20 points, eight rebounds and three steals and Ramonas added 15 points versus the Bulldogs. At the Lions, the Rams were down 28-14 midway through the third period and 35-28 with five minutes to go, but Deering closed the game on a 10-0 run and stole one behind Burchill’s 14 points and seven boards and Ramonas’ eight points and 14 rebounds.

“There’s a lot of pride in these kids and a lot of heart,” said Rams coach Mike Murphy. “We were the afterthought behind the two private schools (at the start of the year).”

Deering will be the No. 1 seed for the third time in four seasons. The Rams downed the 8-10 Golden Trojans, 53-46, on the road Jan. 7. The Rams won at the 7-11 Scots in the regular season opener, Dec. 10 (56-34).

Last year, in the quarterfinals, Deering struggled with Thornton Academy before prevailing, 44-30. The teams also met in the 1975 semifinals (a 56-43 Golden Trojans’ victory) and the 1989 quarterfinals (a 73-63 Rams’ victory). Deering has no playoff history with Bonny Eagle.

“All this means is that we get to wear white (as the higher seed),” Murphy said. “We’re all 0-0. It’s anyone’s tournament. There’s seven or eight good teams. Thornton Academy has three all-stars. They’re a good squad. I feel you wipe out the regular season and play basketball at 0-0 and have the attitude that it’s one game and one possession at a time. We struggle to score at times, but that’s the same with everybody. That’s why I feel it’s wide open.”

McAuley appeared to have the inside track for the top seed when it improved to 14-0 with an overtime win at Deering Feb. 3, but the Lions couldn’t finish strong. After losing at Gorham, McAuley downed visiting Massabesic, 56-29 (senior standout Rebecca Knight had 17 points and 10 rebounds and freshman sensation Allie Clement added 16 points), and Cheverus, 58-39 (as Knight erupted for 31 points), but let a sure win and the top spot slip away Thursday at home versus Deering in the 38-35 loss (junior Alexa Coulombe had a team-high 14 points on four 3-pointers, along with eight rebounds and two blocked shots) to wind up 16-2.

“It’s a great group of kids,” said first-year coach Amy Vachon. “People say we have all that talent and we do, but let’s not forget how hard it is. It’s a team. The seniors are awesome.”

McAuley and 11-7 South Portland know each other well. The Lions were fortunate to survive the host Red Riots, 43-39, back on Jan. 13 (Clement’s 17 points were the difference). The teams have three prior playoff meetings with South Portland taking them all. The most recent was the most memorable, a 39-29 Red Riots’ upset in the 2006 semifinals.

“It’s not an easy draw,” said Vachon. “I expect the same kind of game as the first one. South Portland’s well-coached. (Senior Abby) Hasson’s a nice player inside. Their guards can hit shots. They should be confident after last game. They’ll give us everything they have. We have to stay out of foul trouble.

“We’ve had a target on our back, but we’re not No. 1 now. It’s going to be an interesting tournament. I think at this point, they’re all good teams. Whoever wins it will have to have three good games.”

Cheverus continues to make history on the fly. The Stags finished this season 14-4, the best record in program history. After losing, 58-39, at McAuley last Tuesday (despite six points each from senior Britni Mikulanecz, junior Morgan Cahill and sophomore Kylie Libby), Cheverus held off host South Portland, 52-41, in Friday’s finale (Mikulanecz and junior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy both had 17 points).

“I think we’re right where we want to be,” Mikulanecz said. “I think we’re a top-notch team. We went through a little bit of a slump, but we’re back on our feet and all it means for us is that people aren’t going to take us as seriously and we’re just going to play our game and not worry what everybody else says.”

“We had a good season,” Stags coach Richie Ashley said. “Fourteen wins are the most Cheverus has ever had.”

Cheverus just edged fifth-ranked Sanford (14-4), 50-47, at home Feb. 5 (Cahill scored 17 in that one and Palazzi-Leahy added 14 as the Stags rallied late). The teams have no playoff history. Cheverus is seeking its first postseason win.

“Sanford is a hell of a team,” Ashley said. “They have a great coach and we know they will play real hard, so we have to go down and take care of business. We have to have a good week of preparation and practice.”

In Western C, Waynflete is up to its usual tricks. Every year it seems, the Flyers aren’t considered a top contender, but after reaching the regional final each of the past two seasons, Waynflete is in optimal position again after going 15-3. The Flyers capped their regular year with a wins over Western B playoff participants visiting Cape Elizabeth (43-37, behind 20 points from senior Lydia Stegemann) and host Wells (46-41, as Stegemann again led the way with 21).

“I’m definitely pleased,” said Waynflete coach Brandon Salway. “It was a great regular season. We learned our lessons. The kids have figured out you have to play hard all the time. If we do, we’re competitive with anybody. If we let down, we can get beat. We miss (injured sophomore) Catherine (Veroneau), but (sophomore) Martha (Veroneau) takes all the pressure off. (Sophomore) Rhiannan (Jackson) has emerged and impressed more every week. She’s allowed us to make the jump. Lydia is the most improved player I’ve ever coached.”

As the No. 2 seed, the Flyers will face a familiar foe in the quarterfinals, be it 12-6 St. Dom’s or 10-8 NYA. Waynflete used to see the Saints regularly, when they were a member of the Western Maine Conference. Each of the past two seasons, the Flyers eliminated the Saints in the quarterfinals, 52-34 in 2009 and 44-40 last winter. Waynflete swept NYA this regular season, winning, 65-49 in Yarmouth to start the season Dec. 10 and 69-49 at home Jan. 28. The Flyers have beaten the Panthers 12 straight times and won two of the prior three playoff meetings. The most recent was in the 2004 quarterfinals (a 52-36 Waynflete triumph).

“From what I’ve been told, St. Dom’s would give us a good game,” said Salway. “NYA can score with anybody. If we do our thing, we’ll be in good shape. Games could go either way. It’s more wide open this year.”

Freelance writers Jeff Christenbury and Tom Minervino contributed to this story

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net and followed on Twitter @foresports

Sidebar Elements


Sophomore Matt Cimino is one of countless interchangeable parts that make the undefeated, defending Class A state champion Cheverus boys’ basketball team so good. The Stags enter the tournament as the top seed once again.

Deering senior Kayla Burchill, McAuley junior Alexa Coulombe and their teams are on a collision course as the girls’ tournament gets underway.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.