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SMCC hoops teams off to hot start

Sports

SMCC hoops teams off to hot start

Another basketball season is underway at Southern Maine Community College and while there have been some challenges, both Seawolves teams have impressed in the early going.

Overcoming

On the eve on this season, the women's program was thrown for a loop when last year's successful and popular coach, Kendra Reichert, had to step down suddenly as her husband took a job out of state.

After a 15-12 campaign in 2011-12 and with several key players returning, the Seawolves had high hopes, but suddenly found themselves without a coach.

Enter Sabrina Best.

A former Seawolves player and assistant for the past two seasons, Best convinced SMCC men's coach and athletic director Matt Richards that she was the optimal fit.

"I was told on Oct. 2 (the day after first practice) that (Kendra leaving) was a possibility," Richards said. "The next day I met with Sabrina. The next day we found out it was going to happen, so we made the decision to promote her to head coach. Sabrina's commitment level to the program was a selling point for me. She has passion for Seawolves basketball as a former player and a member of the staff. She's done a nice job embracing the situation. It's a very mature approach to a difficult situation."

"It's gone a lot smoother than a lot of people imagined," Best said. "It helped that I knew the girls, I knew the style of SMCC and who we play. That part was easy. That's usually a struggle for a new coach coming in. I went from not having to be at practice until 15 minutes before to worrying about progress reports and if girls were in class. That's the biggest challenge."

The Seawolves have responded amazingly well to the sudden change, winning five of their first six games.

SMCC earned a big dose of confidence in the opener, a 70-66 win over the University of New Brunswick in the Can-Am tournament.

"It was huge for the girls to get off to a good start," said Best. "It was such a big confidence boost. The first game was really close. We were down one late and I had to burn my last timeout. I told them I couldn't stop play anymore and they had to do it. They surprised me. They stuck to the gameplan and came out of it strong."

Wins over Dalhousie (71-26) and Unity College (77-25) followed. After a 101-43 setback to Community College of Rhode Island, the Seawolves bounced back to defeat Navy Prep (83-39). Monday afternoon, SMCC opened on a 24-4 run and rolled to a 63-19 triumph at Hampshire College to improve to 5-1.

"We've come out stronger than everyone thought," Best said. "This is the first year our numbers are solid. It's the first time we have more post players than guards. We have 13 players and seven are post players."

"The girls are playing hard and that's the sign of a good coach," Richards added.

In the early going, SMCC has seen several players step up, led by junior Esther Palmieri, who's served as a leader on and off the floor. Palmieri scored 10 points against both Dalhousie and Unity and went off for 17 points (and nine assists) against Hampshire College.

"Esther was here with (former coach) Becky (Roak), when we went to Nationals, was here with Kendra and is now here with me," said Best. "She's an angel. She's definitely our go-to player."

Despite its post dominance, the Seawolves have made a living from downtown.

"Having seven post players, you'd think our strength would be our inside game, but our 3-point shooting has been phenomenal," said Best. "We're still trying to figure out who works well together. Our returners and newcomers have hit big 3s. Our guards are amazing. Rogetta Donalson (18 points versus New Brunswick, 22 points in the loss to CCRI) is the type of girl you can put the ball in her hands and something will happen. She can make great drives to the basket, hit big 3s and make crazy passes no one will expect. Emily Bard (25 points against Navy Prep and 13 points versus Dalhousie) is a shooter. I'm hoping she's more consistent this year. Esther will hit 3s. Tiana Burton (nine points, five assists, three steals versus Unity) took a year off, but she's back. She's a true point guard. Esther can handle the role, but I like her as a shooter."

There are several other players to watch as well.

"Alicia Hoyt (18 points, 13 rebounds in the opener) is out right now with a shoulder injury, but she's coming back," said Best. "She eats up the inside game. Maria Veino (15 points against Hampshire College) is a consistent player. You can expect eight points, eight rebounds from her. She gives it her all. Nyalieb Deng (16 points versus Navy Prep and 10 points against Unity) will contribute."

While the Seawolves have a lot of tests to come and will face an abundance of challengers in the conference, Best and the players have their sights set high.

"I could see this team winning the Yankee Conference," Best said. "I think our biggest competition will be Central Maine. It's a great rivalry. They have great returners. We play completely different styles. When we play, it will be very interesting to see who comes out on top. We have the personnel to matchup well.

"We knew from Day One that championship teams are made by the way they overcome adversity. We started with a huge bump in the road and we've overcome very well. Our goal is to win the conference and go to Nationals. It's not an unrealistic goal, especially with the start we've had. I'm a very positive person and with our staff being positive, it's made for an easy transition. We'll make the best out of it."

New look

On the men's side, Richards has eight players back from a young squad which went 12-18 in 2011-12.

So far, so good for the Seawolves in 2012-13. They opened with victories over St. Thomas (81-60), Dalhousie (92-46) and Unity (89-61) before dropping a hard-fought 71-65 decision to Berkeley College of New Jersey. SMCC bounced back to defeat Navy Prep (64-45), then downed Bridgton Academy (77-70), Northern Maine CC (111-64) and Hampshire College (104-49) to improve to 7-1.

"We've played some really good basketball so far," Richards said. "We increase our competitiveness every day. This is the most athletic and defensively sound team I've ever coached here. In years past, we'd win some tight games where maybe the other team had more talent but we won because I used some gimmicks. We don't have to do that this year. We have fullcourt or halfcourt pressure defense. We don't let you catch the ball easily and I have 12 kids who can do that. We've been wearing teams down in the second half. It's been fun to watch."

The addition of point guard Jose Nouchanthavong has really helped the cause. Nouchanthavong had 10 points versus Dahousie, a team-high 14 against Bridgton Academy and 10 assists and six steals against NMCC.

"Jose has been phenomenal," Richards said. "He spent last year getting back to where he should be academically. I have to give him credit. He did a good job understanding the importance of academics. Now he's on the floor and he's much more determined. Having to sit out creates that."

One of the team's key additions has been Jon Amabile, last seen leading Deering to the 2012 Class A state championship. Amabile had a team-high 15 points in the win over Unity, added 12 versus Navy Prep, 13 against Bridgton Academy and 15 in the win over Hampshire College.

"Jon has been a nice addition," said Richards. "He's done a nice job adjusting to this level. He's getting better."

The most notable change this season has been SMCC's sudden change from a bombs-away 3-point shooting squad to one that can get the job done closer to the rim.

"You'll laugh, but I'd like us to shoot the 3-ball better," said Richards, mindful of the program's reputation. "My alumni are having a tough time watching the games because they're not used to us struggling shooting the 3. We shoot well, just not on 3-pointers. It's a far cry from three years ago, when we were averaging 40 3-point shots per game. Now, we only have 15 a game. I think we have shooters and it will get better. Chance Baldino (13 points against Northern Maine CC) is a great shooter and Jon's history says he's a great shooter. Now, it's not a mainstay of our offense.

"I've gotten phenomenal inside play from Nate Dow (15 points versus Dalhousie) and Aubrey Lampkins (17 points in the opener). Nate's matured a lot and Aubrey has come in and given us a threat inside. Mike Harmon (11 points, four rebounds versus Bridgton Academy and 13 versus Hampshire College), from Portland, is a man-child. He's the glue of our team. He plays bigger, stronger and faster than any kid at his position, yet he's 6-foot-1. He's been a joy to coach. I think Alex Hartford (10 points in the win over Dalhousie and 10 points versus Berkeley), from Lake Region, will surprise a lot of people. We've simplified his duties. He's been a nice starting forward for us. We've mixed the new guys and returners. It's been a nice blend so far."

Emmanuel Donalson (17 points against St. Thomas, 17 in the loss to Berkeley, 13 versus NMCC and 12 against Hampshire College) and Shon Powell (13 points versus Navy Prep) are other key contributors.

SMCC will have few easy nights in conference, where several teams will look to prevent the Seawolves from making a run to the top.

"I think the College of St. Joe's will be very good," Richards said. "(New Hampshire Technical Institute) is going to be very strong again. They return two all-Conference players. Eastern Maine has a brand new team, but I hear they're talented. CMCC has a lot of kids. They'll be competitive down the stretch.

"I think we can make a run. I didn't know what to expect in the preseason, but the guys have given me optimism. We have to stay healthy, avoid academic issues and get lucky. There are a lot of factors you can't control that will dictate a team's success. I think we have enough of the pieces to be there, but the other intangibles have to happen."

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.