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Portland Bulldogs Winter Sports Preview

Sports

Portland Bulldogs Winter Sports Preview

The Bulldogs of Portland figure to compete in several sports this winter. Leading the way is a boys' basketball team that got hot at the right time a year ago and reached the regional final. This year's squad figures to once again be among Western Class A's best. The girls' team keeps inching closer to contender status and will be in the mix this season. Boys' hockey has small numbers, but has skill and heart and will be in the playoff mix. The girls' team welcomes a new coach and looks to improve. Both track teams boast good athletes. Swimming continues its growth, as does Nordic skiing. Wrestling hopes to make noise as well.

BOYS' BASKETBALL

COACH: Joe Russo (20th year)

2008-09 Record: 15-7 (Lost 49-43 to Thornton Academy in Western Class A Final)

TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: Wally Stover (Senior), Koang Thok (Senior), Joe Zukowski (Senior), Will DeFanti (Sophomore)

PIVOTAL GAMES: Dec. 15 @ Cheverus, Dec. 22 @ Westbrook, Jan. 5 @ Windham, Jan. 12 @ South Portland, Jan. 15 (H) CHEVERUS, Jan. 22 (H) DEERING, Feb. 2 (H) SOUTH PORTLAND, Feb. 5 @ Deering

COACH'S COMMENT: "I think we'll be in the mix. 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. If Jake Alexander can put together a season like he did in football, we'll surprise some people."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: If people didn't previously appreciate Russo's nonpareil skill at getting a team to come together over the course of a season, they had to notice it a year ago, in what might have been his piece de resistance. The Bulldogs were up and down and lost their final two regular season contests, but put it all together in the tournament, rising from the No. 6 seed to the regional final after upset wins over South Portland and Westbrook before falling to Thornton Academy. 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. 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. Thok was a third-team all-star a year ago, but figures to turn heads this season (he had 21 points in the opener). 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. Zukowski (5.4 ppg, 3.6 rebounds last winter), a forward, could also score his share of points and will help out on the boards and play strong defense. 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. Alexander, who spent most of his time on the JV team in 2008-09, is coming off a monster football campaign and could help replace Bogdanovich's scoring and rebounding prowess. Sophomores Garang Ater, Peter Donato and Matt McInnis and freshman Nate Smart will be in the mix inside. New sophomore guard Mike Herrick is capable of scoring his share of points. Senior Gordon Parker and freshman Nick Volger should also see time at the guard spot. With most of the preseason attention focused on Cheverus, South Portland and Westbrook, Portland can take its time becoming a championship contender. If the Bulldogs can stay healthy and Russo is able to work his magic, they'll likely be that very thing when February rolls around.

FUN FACT: The last two times Portland lost in the regional final (1998 and 2006), it made the state championship game the following winter.

GIRLS' BASKETBALL

COACH: Jan Veinot (third year)

2008-09 Record: 7-12 (Lost 56-50 to South Portland in Western A preliminary round)

TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: Mariah Callender (Senior), Becca Smith (Junior)

PIVOTAL GAMES: Dec. 12 @ Cheverus, Jan. 12 (H) SOUTH PORTLAND, Jan. 14 (H) MCAULEY, Jan. 22 @ Deering, Jan. 28 @ Scarborough, Jan. 29 (H) BIDDEFORD, Feb. 1 @ South Portland, Feb. 3 (H) DEERING

COACH'S COMMENT: "We're athletic this year and more aggressive and gutsy. 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. It's going to be tough this year with only 50 percent of the teams making it. There are a lot of teams in the running."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: Portland continued its climb back toward the top last year with a playoff appearance, but was hit hard by graduation (including the loss of standout Nyachuol Biliew) and an offseason ACL injury to Stephanie Rogers hurt the cause even further. All is not lost for the Bulldogs, however. Veinot will get her girls to play hard and there is some talent on the roster. Callender (3.0 assists per game last winter) will play point guard and figures to score her share of points. 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 (she had 10 points in Saturday's 62-36 season-opening home loss to Thornton Academy). Senior Jill Russell, a transfer from Gorham, could be a factor on the inside (she opened with 16 points Saturday). 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. Keep an eye on this squad. Portland could be the league's dark horse before all is said and done.

FUN FACT: Last year's preliminary round appearance meant that the program still has never gone more than three years without a playoff berth.

BOYS' HOCKEY

COACH: Andy Gildart (second year)

2008-09 Record: 9-9-1 (Lost 6-3 to Kennebunk in Western A preliminary round)

TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: Scott Briggs (Senior), Jason Knight (Senior), Eddie Apon (Junior), Bronson Guimond (Junior), Anthony Bowden (Sophomore)

PIVOTAL GAMES: Dec. 10 (H) GORHAM, Dec. 12 (H) SOUTH PORTLAND, Dec. 17 @ Deering, Dec. 23 @ Gorham, Jan. 7 @ Cheverus, Jan. 21 @ South Portland, Jan. 30 (H) KENNEBUNK, Feb. 3 @ Scarborough, Feb. 10 @ Biddeford, Feb. 13 (H) CHEVERUS, Feb. 15 (H) TA

COACH'S COMMENT: "The expectations are to improve every day both individually and as a team. The guys who have played hockey since they were young are going to have to stay focused and motivated throughout the season. It is going to be hard playing teams like Falmouth, Scarborough, and Thornton Academy when we don't have a full bench. The other teams on are schedule are no pushovers either. The guys playing the sport for the first time need to listen, work hard, and improve if we want to get in the win column. I hope we can play a 'spoiler' role again this year."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: This winter's Portland team could be the classic tale of quality being more important that quantity. The Bulldogs don't even have enough varsity players to run regular practice drills, but if the team can stay conditioned and healthy, there enough good players are on the roster to compete. Briggs and Guimond were both SMAA second-team all-star defensemen last year. They'll make life difficult for the opposition and look to score some goals themselves. They're joined by Bowden. Freshman John Gatti will receive trial by fire in goal (he made 31 saves in Saturday's 5-1 season-opening loss at Falmouth). Offensively, Knight leads the way. He was the leading scorer among forwards on his team a year ago (9 goals, 12 assists). Apon.will be all over the ice, helping out offensively and defensively. Seniors Ben DiBiase and Rudy DiMillo return to the team after a couple years away. Sophomores Marcus Griffin (forward) and Sam Perdomo (defense/forward) also saw time a year ago. Sophomore Ryan Jurgelevich will be the backup goalie and play forward. All of these players have skill, have either produced on the ice or in other sports in the past, or are primed to make a mark this winter. The Bulldogs don't have many breathers on their schedule, so matching last year's record will be a daunting task, but don't bet against this group. This small band of brothers will battle tenaciously and if they get a few breaks, could make an improbable run to the postseason.

FUN FACT: Last season, Portland was the only team to beat Gorham during the regular season.

GIRLS HOCKEY

COACH: Courtney Rideout (first year)

2008-09 Record: 2-15-1 (no postseason)

TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: Ally Dolan (Senior), Nancy McAdam (Senior), Kathleen Dalbec (Junior), Effie Drew (Junior), Abbi Scrutchfield (Junior), Raechel Allen (Sophomore)

PIVOTAL GAMES: Dec. 9 (H) SCARBOROUGH, Dec. 16 @ Biddeford, Dec. 23 (H) CAPE ELIZABETH, Jan. 2 (H) BIDDEFORD, Jan. 9 (H) CHEVERUS, Jan. 18 (H) DEERING, Jan. 23 @ Cheverus, Jan. 27 @ Scarborough, Jan. 30 @ Cape Elizabeth

COACH'S COMMENT: "We're hoping for the girls to improve as individuals and as a team. We expect to have a good season and for the girls to all have fun and learn more about the game."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: Portland welcomes a new coach this winter in Rideout, who played at South Portland and at the University of Southern Maine. She was previously an assistant coach with Casco Bay's U-19 girls' team and also served as an assistant for the Portland Lady Junior Pirates. Rideout inherits a squad that appears to be heading in the right direction. The Bulldogs opened the year with a 5-2 home victory over Bonny Eagle. In that one, Allen impressed, scoring four times. They also won a pair of games in the non-countable Cheverus Purple and Gold Tournament, downing Brunswick and the Greely JV squad. Then, Portland enjoyed a 4-1 win over Deering behind two goals from Dalbec. Dalbec and Allen (a first-team league and region all-star a year ago) will do plenty of damage offensively and should get help from Drew and McAdam, as well as new senior Drew Barry and Emma Wilson. Dolan (an honorable mention SMAA and regional all-star in 2008-09) and Scrutchfield are top defenders in front of sophomore goalie Courtney Rickett. Since Portland has already matched last year's win total, everything from here on out is gravy. Expect more triumph in the weeks to come and perhaps even postseason contention if all goes well.

INDOOR TRACK

BOYS COACH: Carroll Nappi (ninth year)

GIRLS COACH: Liz Koharian (second year)

2008-09 Results:

(BOYS) 9th @ Southwesterns (10th @ Class A state meet)

(GIRLS) Tie-11th @ Southwesterns (no score at Class A state meet)

TOP RETURNING ATHLETES:

(BOYS) Kaori London-Hamilton (Senior), Abdi Ahmed (Junior), Imadhi Zagon (Junior)

(GIRLS) Kristen Byrnes (Senior), Kara Cooper (Junior), Abby Daggett (Junior), Kalli Daggett (Junior), Eleni Anderson (Sophomore), Alice Lala (Sophomore)

TOP FOES: Bonny Eagle, Cheverus, Scarborough

COACH NAPPI'S COMMENT: "Right now, as it stands, it's Imadhi and I don't know what else. I only have 21 kids. Everyone will focus on Imadhi to see what he can do. His focus is on the long jump this year. We'll see if he can put a new name in the record book. We hope to be competitive in the league."

COACH KOHARIAN'S COMMENT: "We have big numbers this year. We have a lot of new faces, so I'm excited to see how we do during the season. My goal is to score in the state meet."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: Look for the Portland track teams to make their share of noise this winter.

The boys' squad is led by the dynamic Zagon, who just keeps getting bigger, stronger and better. Last winter, Zagon was runner-up in both the high and long jumps and placed fifth in the 200. Look for him to move up this season. He's focusing on the long jump record, but should be a force in the high jump, as well as the 40 and the 200. London-Hamilton is another jumper to watch. Ahmed will compete in the 400. Nappi was hoping to talk cross country runner Cole Hutchison onto the team to give it some strength in the distance events, but he wasn't sure if he'd been successful at press time. Regardless, the Bulldogs will be tough in the league and could steal the show at states if Zagon lives up to billing.

On the girls' side, the numbers are improving and so are Portland's chances. Abby Daggett was sixth in the junior 400 a year ago at the SMAA championship meet. She'll also run in the 4x400 relay. Kallie Daggett competes in the 800. Cooper is a distance threat. Anderson and Lala run the shorter races. Byrnes is the top thrower. Look for the Bulldogs to score their share of points as the season progresses and be in position to make a mark at the big meets.

SWIMMING

COACH: Martha White (fourth year)

2008-09 Results:

(BOYS) 4th @ Southwesterns (Tie-19th @ Class A state meet

(GIRLS) 13th @ Southwesterns (no score @ Class A state meet)

TOP RETURNERS:

(BOYS) Max Dismore (Senior), Ian Worden (Senior), David Bliss (Sophomore)

(GIRLS) Mary Badger (Sophomore)

COACH'S COMMENT: "I expect the Bulldogs to continue to work at developing their stroke repertoire and competitive versatility. I expect them to work hard, have fun and do their best, as they've done the last few years. The boys' team is about the same size as last year, so we hope to compete as well as or better than last year. We have greater depth than in previous years. The girls' team is growing. That will make a nice difference. As long as we're all doing our best, we'll continue to improve and we can take pride in our accomplishments.."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: The Portland swim program continues to move in the right direction.

The boys' squad saved their best for last a year ago, placing fourth at Southwesterns, then scoring at states. This year, Portland is led by Bliss, who was ninth in the breaststroke a year ago at states. He'll compete in several different disciplines. Worden (sprint freestyle) and Dismore (diving) are also capable of scoring points. The Bulldogs are in position to repeat their success of a year ago.

On the girls' side, Badger is the top returner. She qualified for states a year ago and specializes in the breaststroke and sprint freestyle. Freshman Leanne Reichert could step right in and make an impact as well. Several new girls will also get a chance to make their presence felt. Portland will have fun as it improves over the course of the season. The Bulldogs are up and coming.

NORDIC SKIING

COACH: Craig Whiton (11th year)

2008-09 Results:

(BOYS) No score @ Class A state meet

(GIRLS) No score @ Class A state meet

TOP RETURNING SKIERS:

(BOYS) Tim Weber (Senior)

(GIRLS) Melanie Peabody (Senior)

COACH'S COMMENT: "We have more kids than ever this year, 20. We've taken on two Cheverus skiers and we have some kids from Casco Bay High School. It's a young squad. The girls have enough skiers to score as a team. They could do some damage, bu they're young. The others will go for individual results. They love what they're doing and don't care what team it is."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: Portland's skiers join those from Cheverus, Deering and Casco Bay under the Portland Nordic Ski Club umbrella. Weber returns to lead the boys' squad. Peabody is the top girls' returner. She's joined by promising freshman Abby Popenoe. Other boys and girls hope to improve and make a mark as the season progresses.

WRESTLING

COACHES: David Elowitch and Tony Napolitano (seventh year)

2008-09 Results: 5-15 regular season, 12th @ regionals (no score @ Class A state meet)

TOP RETURNERS: Pat Cormier (Junior), Fred Huber (Junior), Len Schwartz (Junior)

COACH ELOWTICH'S COMMENT: "We expect to send four or five wrestlers to the state meet and to win half of our dual matches."

THE FORECASTER'S FORECAST: The Bulldogs have some promising wrestlers on the roster this winter. Top returners include Cormier at 145-pounds, Huber (135) and Schwartz (130). Three newcomers are worth watching as well. That group includes junior Evan Michalski (119 or 125 pounds) and sophomores Garrett Cormier (140) and Nate Porter (heavyweight). Portland should be competitive against most of the teams it squares off against and hopes to produce some state meet talent by February. There's a good chance that several of those mentioned will have a chance to wrestle on the big stage at year's end.

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Senior Koang Thok is a returning all-star who figures to lead the Portland boys' basketball team to great things this season.

MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Junior Imadhi Zagon will compete for a state title in track and field this season.

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Melanie Peabody will look to run heads on the Nordic ski trails this season.

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Wally Stover came alive for the Portland boys' basketball team last February and hopes to continue to dominated for the Bulldogs this season.

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Senior Joe Zukowski's experience and talent will pay big dividends for the Bulldogs this winter.

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Abby Daggett will be a threat for Portland in the 400 this season.