SMCC hoops season one of growth, close calls

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While the Southern Maine Community College basketball teams fell shy of a conference title and a trip to Nationals, the Seawolves still had plenty to hail this winter.

And the future is very bright indeed.

Good start

The SMCC women came into the 2013-14 with their third coach in less than a calendar year, but Julia Howe was able to provide some stability.

With some help.

Howe was fortunate enough to inherit senior Esther Palmieri, a former South Portland Red Riot, and a player who has literally done everything the Seawolves needed during her career.

That right there, gave the program a leg up.

Mix in some other key returners and the arrival of Danielle McCusker, another South Portland native, who was a key contributor at Central Maine CC before returning home, and SMCC was ready to go.

The Seawolves started slowly, winning just once in their first three games, but by early December, after a narrow win over New Hampshire Technical Institute, SMCC had won seven of eight and was 8-3. After a 6-1 January and an up-and-down February, capped by a decisive home win over Vermont Tech in the regular season finale, SMCC finished 18-7 with a solid 12-2 record in Yankee Small College Conference play.

“They were ready for discipline and that helped me,” said Howe, who is also SMCC’s assistant athletic director. “It took awhile, but once they bought in, it was all smooth sailing from there. In the first semester, our chemistry was a little off, but coming off Christmas break, we got along better. I wanted to drive home structure and an up-tempo game and always being competitive defensively. I think the girls basically executed my game plan all season.”

Late heroics from McCusker and Palmieri helped the Seawolves rally to beat NHTI, 63-58, in the YSCC quarterfinals, but the season came to an end with a 75-67 setback to U. Maine-Augusta. McCusker and Maria Veino both had 17 points and SMCC had a decisive advantage on the glass (a 46-31 rebounding advantage), but still suffered the painful defeat and ended 19-8, a better mark than the 17-9 put up by the 2012-13 squad.

“The way it ended was disappointing. but overall, I’m very pleased,” Howe said. “I worked with a great group of kids. I didn’t have a ton of them, but they were hard working and did what I asked. I thought we had a very successful season. We did a lot of good things. We elevated the program and showed we could be competitive with anybody. I think we lived up to expectations.”

SMCC only loses three players, but it’s the quality of the players departing every bit as much as the quantity that will be felt.

For starters, McCusker’s lone season in a Seawolves uniform resulted in a team-leading 16 points per game. She also led the squad in foul shooting (74 percent) and was second on the team in assists (2.6 per game) and third in rebounds (5.5). McCusker was named to the YSCC All-Conference first team and was also named All-American.

“Danielle worked very hard for those awards,” Howe said. “I was happy for her.”

It’s safe to say that no player had a bigger impact on the program for a longer period of time than Palmieri, who averaged 9.7 points and a team-high 4.3 assists per contest. She will graduate as the program’s all-time assist leader.

“You can’t replace Danielle McCusker and Esther Palmieri,” Howe said. “That’s really tough.”

Also departing is Roberta Trafton.

“Roberta Trafton was a two-year player who gave us depth in the post,” said Howe.

The Seawolves do have plenty of ammunition returning, however, and will be starting from a better place come next season.

“We’re bringing back seven people, which is a great base for next year,” Howe said. “We have a good recruiting class so far. The learning curve will be less. It won’t take us as long getting into the groove. I still have co-captain Alicia Hoyt. She’s been very consistent about her rehab. We hope she’s back by October 1. Maria Veino and Nyalieb Deng both stepped up and consistently gave me double digit scoring. They nearly averaged a double-double. I think they’ll step up. My expectations for Chandler Waterman will be high. She’ll step into the point guard role and can be a shooter. Danielle Day is a good shooter coming off the bench. She could give us offense from the outside. We hope to have other people step into their roles. They’re capable of filling them. It’s just getting their confidence up.”

Better than expected

The SMCC men’s program has the consistency the women have lacked, thanks to coach/athletic director Matt Richards, who completed his 11th season at the helm.

Despite 13 newcomers, the Seawolves got off to a fast start in 2013-14, winning their first seven games and 11 of their first dozen. While SMCC cooled off in the second semester, its 20-8 record (and 13-3 conference mark) hinted at postseason success.

The Seawolves were able to defeat U. Maine-Augusta, 89-71, behind 25 points from Jose Nouchanthavong and 18 from Tong Akot in the YSCC quarterfinals, but in the semis, SMCC was ousted by St. Joseph (Vt.), 79-65, despite 17 points from Nouchanthavong, to finish 21-9.

“I was very, very pleased at the direction our program went,” Richards said. “I thought we were extremely competitive right out of the gate. We played against some of the best competition in New England. The difference for us was that our younger guys got a lot of early experience. There were some eye-opening moments for them, but they gained valuable experience. That paid some really good dividends. I look forward to their maturation into next year.

“I thought with the combination of really strong point guard play with Jose and the pieces of some of the young guys we recruited, there was a chance we’d be in the top four in the conference. We got some confidence early and our team chemistry really developed much more than I really expected. That put us in a position to be the number two team in the conference. We did exceed expectations a little bit.”

The Seawolves were led by Nouchanthavong, who led the team in scoring (15.7) and assists (5.7). He made the YSCC All-Conference team and was also selected All-American.

“I’ve been here 11 years and Jose’s the fifth All-American,” Richards said. “He’s absolutely deserving. He was a kid in my opinion who was under-recruited out of high school. I saw a kid with a ton of potential, who had a quiet disposition. He had wonderful talent and needed to grow and mature as an individual more than as a player. His work ethic was off the charts. The All-American award is a true testament to what he put in. I’m thrilled and proud to have coached him for three years.”

Like the women, the SMCC men will return plenty of firepower next season.

“We lose five kids, two starters, but I’m very optimistic with what I have coming back,” Richards said. “Jose’s a very big void. Filling that void might not come from one player. It might be a combination of current guys developing their games and getting some freshmen to come in. I don’t know if there’s one player we can slide in there. At the other positions, I think we’ll just get better. We could be a really strong contender starting next year. Recruiting’s going well. Our success this season has kids interested in us. I think the future’s looking good. Our offseason will start next week. We’ll make a commitment to the weight room. Some kids decided to live here this summer because they want the opportunity to work on their games. I expect two or three of them will step in and come back better versions of themselves.”

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

Sidebar Elements

Jose Nouchanthavong made quite an impact in his final season with the SMCC men’s basketball team, earning All-American honors for his play.

South Portland’s Danielle McCusker only wore a Seawolves uniform for one year, but did she ever make an impact, earning All-American honors.

For four seasons, South Portland’s Esther Palmieri was the heart and soul of the Seawolves. Palmieri will graduate as one of the program’s all-time greats and will be very difficult to replace.

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