Deering girls look to make it three straight Cheverus, McAuley, Portland stand in the way, Waynflete still a force in Class C
The Deering girls' basketball team was superb en route to a state title in 2007-08. Last year, the Rams were simply perfect as they repeated as Gold Ball winners.
After being hit hard by graduation – most notably the loss of Diana Manduca and Jess Ruhlin – the question is, can Deering do it again?
With several strong players returning, the Rams certainly feel the answer is a resounding yes.
Junior Kayla Burchill could be the league's next big star. She has great skills (11.4 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game a year ago) and can do it all. She was a first-team all-star as a sophomore. Senior Claire Ramonas (3.1 steals per game and an honorable mention all-star last year) is another standout on both ends of the floor. Junior Britni Mikulanecz is a tenacious defender and will look to step it up offensively this winter (3.1 steals per game, as well as 3.0 assists last year during an All-Rookie team season).
Senior Maria Salamone, junior Aarika Viola and sophomore Ella Ramonas should all play bigger roles this time around. If that's not enough, several newcomers will provide depth and hope to make contributions as the season progresses. Deering can score as many points as it needs to, will control the boards and play the best lockdown defense around. This year's team hopes to make its own mark and continue the school's legacy. While Scarborough, McAuley and possibly Biddeford stand in the way of a three-peat, the Rams have to be considered the team to beat until someone defeats them (something which hasn't happened since Jan. 5, 2008). Deering, which is riding a 36-game win streak, has to like its chances as the season begins.
"Last year was a dream season," said second-year coach Mike Murphy, The Forecaster's Coach of the Year last winter. "There are still a lot of expectations with three starters back. We have kids who have been battle-tested. It's nice nucleus of kids who want to compete. They want to be very, very good. This group will have to find its own identity. I like what we have, but we have areas to improve on. Nothing is a given. We're a team. Individual stats don't matter. The girls have great attitudes. They're a pleasure to coach."
The Rams opened with a 71-24 home win over Bonny Eagle behind 24 from Burchill and 17 from Ramonas. Deering has a showdown at Scarborough Friday night.
One of the teams with the best shot at dethroning Deering is none other than its Stevens Avenue rival, McAuley. The Lions went 11-9 a year ago and lost 42-27 to the Rams in the Western A quarterfinals, although they gave Deering its biggest scare of the postseason in the process.
This season, McAuley has size, speed and shooting ability and now just needs to put it all together.
The Lions are led by junior Rebecca Knight (an SMAA first-team all-star in 2008-09), who has verbally committed to the University of Maine. At the moment, she's pegged to be the point guard, but she's equally adept inside or out and can shoot (14.7 points per game on 52 percent accuracy last year), rebound (6.2 per game last winter) and play solid defense.
Senior Caitlin Cimino and sophomore Alexa Coulombe (an All-Rookie team selection last year who was also the league leader in blocks per game with 4.7 and a top rebounder, 8.4 per game) will also do their share of scoring. Senior Allina Verrillo's defense won't make life easy for the opposition. Look for freshman Hannah Cooke to step right in and make an impact. She might wind up the team's point guard before all is said and done. McAuley's interchangeable parts will serve it well. Teams will not be able to focus on shutting down one player or relying on their pressure defense. The Lions can spread the offense around and keep possession. Knight is on the verge of being one of the league's elite players. If she gets some support, the younger players develop as hoped and the team stays healthy, McAuley could once again be standing in Deering's way in the tournament and this time deny the Rams altogether.
"I'm cautiously very optimistic about the season," said fourth-year coach Wil Smith. "I think if we stay healthy, we could have a very good year. We're still relatively young, but that youth has a lot of game experience. All five girls can handle the ball. The maturity of Knight and Cimino will help us a lot. We'll be back to an up-tempo game on both ends of the floor which should help us get some offense out of our defense. The potential's there, but potential's just that."
The Lions enjoyed a 39-35 home win over Marshwood to start the season (Knight scored 16 points and Cimino added 10). They host Deering Jan. 28 and visit the Rams on Feb. 5.
Portland reached the tournament a year ago and wound up 7-12 after a 56-50 preliminary round loss to South Portland. The Bulldogs graduated some top-notch talent, including Nyachuol Biliew, and lost Stephanie Rogers to an ACL injury, but should be in the hunt again this winter.
Senior Mariah Callender (3.0 assists per game last winter) will play point guard and figures to score her share of points. Junior Becca Smith is another guard who will provide steady play. Junior Nicolette Kapothanasis, a transfer from McAuley, is a budding star with a great outside shot. Senior Jill Russell, a transfer from Gorham, could be a factor on the inside. Portland will not be an easy foe for anyone to face. The Bulldogs have a manageable schedule in the first half of the season, although most of the games are away from the Expo. If Portland can get off to a good start, it will be in position to make a playoff run. The Bulldogs won't have it easy in the second half of January and early February, but if they're clicking on all cylinders and playing with confidence, they will be able to compete with anyone.
"We're athletic this year and more aggressive and gutsy," said third-year coach Jan Veinot. "We don't have a lot of size. We'll play up-tempo. Realistically, if we play well and play good defense, we're definitely in the running for the playoffs."
Portland opened Saturday with a 62-36 home loss to Thornton Academy. Russell led the Bulldogs with 16 points, while Kapothanasis added 10.
Cheverus is no longer happy to just contend. The Stags want to make it to the Expo and beyond after falling in close games in the preliminary round in each of the past two seasons (including a 33-27 loss to McAuley last year, which left them 8-11). Despite a young roster, third-year coach Richie Ashley and his players remain hungry and will make noise in the weeks to come.
Cheverus features senior Theresa Hendrix, a guard, a standout three-sport athlete who will be in the middle of things from start to finish. Sophomore Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy (an SMAA All-Rookie team selection last winter, after finishing fourth in the league in foul shooting percentage) showed promise as a freshman and could emerge as one of the team's top scorers. Seniors Hanna Lyons and Anna Snook bring experience, then there are three new players who will immediately make a mark. Freshman center Brooke Flaherty, a 6-footer, will help Cheverus in the paint and figures to be a starter from the get-go. Fellow freshmen Mikayla Mayberry and Victoria Nappi also look to make an impact. While two-time defending state champion Deering, Scarborough, McAuley and Biddeford might be in the top tier (at least on paper), there are an abundance of teams in the running for the other playoff spots. The Stags are certainly one of them.
"We're on the verge," said Ashley. "We have to win games we're supposed to win, then knock off one of the top teams. We're quick and more athletic and fast than last year. We have a little more height. Theresa and the other seniors will be key. Making the tournament's the goal. We want to be in the top seven and avoid a prelim on the road."
Cheverus opened Friday with a 51-30 home win over Noble. Palazzi-Leahy led the team with 15 points. Hendrix added a dozen.
In Western Class C, Waynflete missed out on a first-ever trip to the Class C state final by two points a year ago, finishing 17-4 after a 40-38 loss to Jay in the regional championship game. This season, many expect the Flyers to take a step back after they were hard hit by graduation (losing Mariam Qazi and last Winter's Female Athlete of the Year, Annie Cutler), but there are three reasons to believe Waynflete will be strong again.
The first is the return of senior post standout Morgan Woodhouse (a first-team conference all-star in 2008-09), who has improved exponentially in each of her seasons and started 2009-10 with a triple-double in a 53-26 win over North Yarmouth Academy (20 points, 20 rebounds, 11 steals). She'll be difficult for any team to handle, regardless of class.
Then, there's the freshmen Veroneau twins. Martha Veroneau has already hinted that she plans to eclipse the scoring marks of her storied older sister Margaret (Class of 2008), while twin sister Catherine has great upside as well. Each sister hit a 3 at the start of Waynflete's win over the Panthers Friday (Martha wound up with a game-high 23 points), setting the stage for the romp. Waynflete faces some tough tests on its schedule and will go through some growing pains, but stands to be formidable in February. The Flyers might not be on the list of state contenders, but if the newcomers produce as hoped and Woodhouse dominates as expected, Waynflete will spend some time in Augusta. Perhaps a lot of time. This will be one team that will be very fun to watch.
"We've been pretty competitive against quality preseason opponents," said third-year coach Brandon Salway. "We've come a long way in two weeks. I'm encouraged. If we continue to develop and improve as quickly as we have, I think we can make a run at Augusta. If we get there, anything can happen. We're not very deep, but we might surprise."
Waynflete gets a good test at Class B contender Falmouth Friday.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com