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SMCC off to a hot start on the hardwood

Sports

SMCC off to a hot start on the hardwood

The start of the 2013-14 basketball season has been very kind to the Southern Maine Community College Seawolves, as at press time, the men and women have combined for an 11-1 record.

Once again, both rosters feature some talented veterans and key newcomers and as a result, there's plenty of optimism in the air in South Portland.

Fresh start

Last year, the women's team lost its coach, Kendra Reichert, early in the season, when she took a job out of state. The Seawolves still had a competitive season (going 17-9) under challenging circumstances, but are starting from a much more stable place this winter and that has extended to their play on the court.

Julia Howe is now leading the program. She played and coached at Maine Maritime Academy and also coached at Wentworth Institute of Technology, LaSalle College and Johnson and Wales. Howe, who is also SMCC's assistant athletic director, has pushed the right buttons so far.

SMCC did drop its opener, a tough 62-60 decision against the University of New Brunswick-St. John's in the Can-Am tournament.

"We were down one and had a layup opportunity that we unfortunately missed and we sent them to the free throw line and lost by two," Howe lamented. "One made shot would have made the difference in that game."

The Seawolves haven't lost since, downing visiting Bunker Hill CC (98-42), Navy Prep (85-68) and Hampshire College (85-32) before earning an impressive victory Saturday in their first true road test, 59-37, at Vermont Tech.

SMCC has ridden an up-tempo offense and contributions from many players.

The team is led by point guard Esther Palmieri, now in her fourth season. Palmieri is nearing the 1,000 career point mark and has a chance to graduate as the program's all-time assist leader.

Portland High graduate Nyalieb Deng, Deering High grad Stefanie Saavedra, newcomer Chandler Waterman (a one-time Noble High star), Danielle McCusker, a one-time South Portland Red Riot who transferred to the Seawolves from rival Central Maine CC and had 21 points at Vermont Tech, and freshman Zyrah Giustra have also played key roles.

"I expected a good start," said sophomore forward-center Alicia Hoyt, who started the season, but is now sidelined with a knee injury. "We have a lot of returning players. Our newcomers look good. Players have stepped up. I think we run well. We get the ball up the floor quick. A lot of our points come from transition. We're faster than last year. I enjoy the fast pace. (Coach) brings more intensity than we had, a lot more knowledge of the game. Danielle isn't a surprise. You know she'll do well. She's a nice addition. 'Z' is intense on defense and in your face. She picks us up. She's always positive."

"I'm pleasantly surprised," Howe said. "We've competed in every game. We could be undefeated. The kids are running and doing what I'm asking on offense. I like playing up-tempo. I have depth in the post. Our offense is well distributed. I have kids who can step up and drop 10 or 15 points a game. I don't rely on one person, so teams can't shut one person down.

"We have a lot of experience, especially compared to other two-year programs. Esther, my point guard, and Danielle are both four-year players and have experience. Esther's a great point guard and leader on the floor. McCusker's a great shooter. I have seven other returners and Stephanie, who played on the 2011-12 team. Maria Veino is playing really well. Nyalieb has a couple double-doubles and is playing well. Roberta Trafton had a great first game, but has been out with a concussion. Chandler's also a great shooter. She's adjusting to a new role. Yaritza Tejada returns at point guard. She brings quickness. She's only 4-11, so it's hard to keep up with her."

SMCC still has plenty of heavy lifting on its schedule, including upcoming home tests against the likes of rivals New Hampshire Technical Institute and CMCC, but the Seawolves believe they have plenty of upside.

"We have so many good players," Hoyt said. "There are still some we're not taking advantage of. We have to use everyone to the best of their abilities. Everybody wants to win a championship and go to Nationals and get that experience."

"Communication and boxing out will make us better," Howe said. "We've outrebounded our opponents substantially, but playing against bigger teams going forward, we'll emphasize boxing out in practice. CM's the glaring obstacle. They're a great shooting team, they press all the time. We'll have to be prepared for them. NHTI is always strong. (U. Maine-Augusta) has a really good team this year. If we can crack down on defense and execute our press well, a championship is in the realm of possibility."

Stability

The men's program remains in reliable hands, as coach/athletic director Matt Richards is now in his 11th season. The Seawolves went 20-11 a year ago, but the team wasn't able to build on a strong start.

"Last year, we were firing on all cylinders in the first semester. then we got hit with the flu bug and injuries and I had seven guys suited up for a crucial week," Richards said. "We had the talent, but we were unlucky."

This time around, SMCC has a few familiar names back, but a lot of new players have rounded out a robust roster. Often that leads to a learning curve, but in this case, the squad has jelled more quickly than hoped and as a result, the Seawolves haven't lost in seven outings.

SMCC beat St. Thomas University (59-52) and the University of New Brunswick-St. John (84-52) at the Can-Am tournament, then handled visiting Holyoke CC (78-57), Bridgton Academy (79-74), Navy Prep (77-66) and Hampshire College (100-29), before edging host Vermont Tech Saturday, 80-78, on Jose Nouchanthavong's basket with a second to go.

"Every coach has flaws they see, but the kids have bought into the concept of understanding a team goal," Richards said. "They've been extremely coachable. Probably the most coachable group I've had in my 11 years. We had to define roles and the kids have bought in. I call it bench decorum. I think you only win when you have great bench decorum. When you don't have it, slumps last longer. When you have it, kids pull for each other and they're active participants on the bench. That's happened this year. The coaching staff has spent a lot of time bringing in quality players. I thought we had talented players last year, but I wasn't sold on our team chemistry. We wanted to emphasize that."

Nouchanthavong, who could become the program's all-time assist leader if all goes well, along with former Deering standout Jon Amabile, lead the list of returners.

"I kind of expected us to do well based on our team chemistry, which is much better than last year," Amabile said. "Everyone likes to play together and that's made us better. Everyone hangs out together. Coach rotates every few minutes so everyone has fresh legs so we can go hard all the time."

"We had a challenging schedule to start, so I was hoping to go a little over .500 and progressively get better, but the guys have bought in and we had a quick start," Richards said. "I'm getting solid play from different people. When you bring back your backcourt, that's a good thing. Jose and Jon have a great emphasis on the offensive end, but the supporting roles are interchangeable."

Indeed many players have stepped up in the early going.

"We have 13 new faces," Richards said. "It was a conscious decision to have a big roster because we found kids who were interchangeable. From a post perspective, we're getting solid play from Jacob Loveridge and Tong Akot. Tong was well known in the Manchester (N.H.) area. He's an undersized center, but he's a good player. He's a tough matchup. Jacob's blossomed. He's figured out how to play at this level. Scott Proudman, Davis Nicholson, Atencio Martin and Alex Hartford have all been efficient. Scott Proudman was our leading scorer and Atencio has been a leading scorer the last couple games."

SMCC knows that what happens in November means little come February, so it is focusing on continuing to improve with an eye on making noise at the end of the season at a conference and perhaps even national level.

"Defense is a strong point," Amabile said. "Once we start doing well on offense, we'll be even better. We have to hit more shots. We'll adjust. We've worked on setting screens. That should help us out. We have to just go hard in practice every day. I think we have a chance to win a conference title."

"Predicting our league is so challenging," Richards said. "CMCC did a great job recruiting. They're a very talented team. Machias got their coach back and he's had a calming influence. They could challenge. Throw into the mix Vermont Tech, last year's conference champion. You also have College of St. Joe's, who year in year out, has great talent. We're in a good spot in that we're showing we can play well against good competition early."

SMCC will have a secret weapon come the postseason. One which it hopes propels it to greatness.

"(We host the conference tournament,) so someone will have to beat us on our homecourt to win the championship and that gives us an edge," Richards said. "You have to be talented and extremely lucky to win it. The team that avoids the huge injuries and doesn't have devastating sicknesses and that jells at the end will win."

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

Remaining schedules

Men 

Wed., Nov. 20 @ Dean College
Sat., Nov. 23 H EMCC
Tues., Nov. 26 @ U. Maine-Augusta
Sun., Dec. 1 @ St. Joseph's (Vt.)
Tues., Dec. 3 @ Unity College
Thurs., Dec. 5 H NHTI
Wed., Dec. 11 H CMCC
Sat., Dec. 14 H NMCC
Fri., Dec. 20 @ King's (N.Y.)
Sat., Dec. 21 @ Vaughn
Fri., Jan. 10 @ St. Joseph's
Sun., Jan. 12 H JOHN ABBOTT COLLEGE
Wed., Jan. 15 @ EMCC
Fri., Jan. 17 @ Navy Prep
Mon., Jan. 20 @ NMCC
Wed., Jan. 22 H U. MAINE-MACHIAS
Sat., Jan. 25 @ U. Maine-Machias
Wed., Jan. 29 H UNITY COLLEGE
Sat., Feb. 1 H U. MAINE-PRESQUE ISLE
Thurs., Feb. 6 @ NHTI
Sat., Feb. 8 H U. MAINE-MACHIAS
Wed., Feb. 12 @ CMCC
Sat., Feb. 15 H VERMONT TECH

Women

Wed., Nov. 20 @ Dean College
Sat., Nov. 23 H EMCC
Tues., Nov. 26 @ U. Maine-Augusta
Sun., Dec. 1 @ St. Joseph's (Vt.)
Tues., Dec. 3 @ Unity College
Thurs., Dec. 5 H NHTI
Wed., Dec. 11 H CMCC
Sat., Dec. 14 H BRIARCLIFFE (N.Y.)
Fri., Dec. 20 @ King's (N.Y.)
Sat., Dec. 21 @ Vaughn
Fri., Jan. 10 @ St. Joseph's
Sun., Jan. 12 H JOHN ABBOTT COLLEGE
Wed., Jan. 15 @ EMCC
Fri., Jan. 17 @ Navy Prep
Wed., Jan. 22 H U. MAINE-MACHIAS
Sat., Jan. 25 @ U. Maine-Machias
Wed., Jan. 29 H UNITY COLLEGE
Sat., Feb. 1 H U. MAINE-PRESQUE ISLE
Thurs., Feb. 6 @ NHTI
Sat., Feb. 8 H U. MAINE-MACHIAS
Wed., Feb. 12 @ CMCC
Sat., Feb. 15 H VERMONT TECH