A year can make a big difference for a high school basketball program. A team with new varsity players often struggles. Give them a year’s experience and the difference can be noticeable.

Cheverus is one of those teams.

“It’s been significant,” said Coach Dan Costigan. “Just having a year’s experience and being on the floor has made a big difference for us. Going into last season we didn’t have anyone who had played any time on the varsity. We kind of knew it was going to be a rough go a little bit. The players have worked hard.”

Despite lacking experience last season, Cheverus just missed qualifying for the last tournament spot. The Stags finished 6-12, the same record as Gorham, which grabbed the 11th seed by just over a point in the Heal point standings.

After Tuesday night’s 76-63 victory against Scarborough, the Stags (8-7) moved from eighth to seventh in the rankings.

Cheverus faces a big challenge at home Friday night against unbeaten and top-ranked Portland. In their first meeting Dec. 30, the Bulldogs won 55-46 at the Expo. Both teams have improved in the last month.

After Portland, Cheverus closes the regular season at Deering and South Portland. There’s plenty of chances for the Stags to improve their ranking with strong play.

Two of the team’s best wins were 47-46 over Deering on Dec. 20 and 56-41 over South Portland on Jan. 17.

“We’re right in a pack with a bunch of other teams,” said Costigan. “If some of those can pull upsets, it will jumble the standings around. It should be interesting.”

Players like Zordan Holman, Noah Stebbins, Manny Ismail and Brad Carney have stepped up their games this season. They were around in the last couple of years of Coach Bob Brown’s tenure and watched strong teams.

“I think this season it’s just a question of being more experienced,” said Ismail, the senior point guard. “Last year we had a bunch of guys up from the (junior varsity) who had never gotten any varsity action. My junior year was my first time playing in a varsity game.”

Freshman Austin Boudreau has sparked the Stags with his shooting, ballhandling and rebounding.

“He’s a very good player,” said Costigan. “Austin has hit some big shots for us.”

Boudreau hit a couple of 3s in the third quarter against Scarborough, which prevented the Red Storm from overtaking Cheverus.

Senior Sam Cross provides another solid rebounder who chips in with valuable points.

This season hasn’t been without detours. After starting 4-1 (losing 62-58 to Bonny Eagle in game two), the Stags dropped five straight and seemed in danger of again not making the tournament. Cheverus rebounded with wins over Westbrook and South Portland, lost to Marshwood, then beat Biddeford and Scarborough.

Friday’s game against Portland will give Cheverus a chance to compare itself with the best team in the SMAA.

SCARBOROUGH IS a team that can make great runs, like it did against Cheverus in the third quarter Tuesday, but also can go into funks as it did in another third quarter in the previous game against Deering, an 88-72 loss.

The Red Storm came out flat against Cheverus and found itself in a 15-0 hole. Trailing by 22 at halftime, they sliced the deficit to two points after three quarters, but another dry spell and Cheverus’ ability to regroup in the fourth quarter proved the difference.

“Because of our lack of height, we have to really battle inside,” said Coach Tony DiBiase. “We’re a team of runs. We have to knock down our shots from the perimeter.”

DUSTIN COLE of Bonny Eagle tops the scoring in the SMAA with a 23.0 point-per-game average. Matt Hartl of Scarborough is second at 19.3. Following are Quinn Richardson-Newton of Thornton Academy (17.8), Jon Morgan, Sanford (17.7) and then Nate Wessel of Scarborough (17.6).

Demetrious Hoskins of Westbrook is the league’s top rebounder. The sophomore is averaging 9.6 per game. Zordan Holman of Cheverus is second at 9.4, followed by Cale Thornton of Massabesic at 9.2.

Cole is the assist leader at 7.4 per game. Evyn Nolette of Sanford ranks second at 6.2. Markus D’Andrea of Windham is third at 5.6.

Grayson Waterman of Noble and Milani Hicks of Scarborough are tied for the steals lead at 4.1 a game.

Ben Malloy leads in 3-point shooting, having made 39. Brady Dodge of Noble is the top free-throw shooter at 86 percent.

Bonny Eagle is the top offensive team with an average of 68.9 points per game. Portland ranks second at 68.6. Cheverus ranks as the top defensive team at 46.3 points per game. Portland is next at 48.0.

Scarborough is the third-highest scoring team in the league at 67.9 points per game but also ranks last in defense, allowing 65.6 per game.

Tom Chard can be contacted  at 791-6419 or at:

tchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: TomChardPPH