Youth will be served in this year’s Maine girls’ basketball tournament diner.
The question is what portion size these talented young players get. The champions’ plate or the kiddie-table special with a side of experience?
Almost every Western Class A playoff team has at least one integral player who is a freshman or sophomore. Throughout the state youngsters appear primed to impact the tourney at every level.
“It looks good for the league because there’s lots of young talent across the league,” South Portland Coach Lynne Hasson said.
South Portland is a prime example. The Red Riots went 15-3 this season with freshman point guard Lydia Henderson quickly adapting to the multiple defenses and faster pace of the SMAA, and sophomore off guard Maddie Hasson becoming one of the league’s most consistent scorers, averaging 14.4 points.
Hasson got a taste of the tournament last year when South Portland lost to Scarborough in the quarterfinals. She thinks that experience will help her individually and the entire team.
“I could have played better. I think the nerves got to me a little bit,” Hasson said. “This year going into it I think I can kind of put the nerves aside and not let that affect me.”
“It’s not the teams that we’re going to be playing that get you nervous,” Henderson said. “It’s just the environment and playing on a big court, and it’s playoffs. It’s completely different. I mean, I would think. I don’t know.”
Henderson won’t be alone in getting her first taste of playing a tournament game at a neutral site. No. 5 Gorham’s leading scorer and rebounder, Emily Esposito, No. 2 Thornton Academy shooter off the bench, Isabella Robinson, and Deering point guard Katasia Titherington will be making their big-floor debuts.
In truth, titles are probably not in the offing for any key freshman this season.
McAuley, the three-time state champ, is again the heavy favorite in Western A and loaded with veterans. Player of the Year candidate Allie Clement, 6-foot-3 Olivia Smith and Jackie Welch are seniors. Juniors Victoria Lux and Olivia Dalphonse round out the starting lineup.
In Western B, No. 3 Wells starts five seniors and No. 1 Lake Region clearly revolves around senior 6-2 center Tiana-Jo Carter.
But the Lakers also need their young talent to play well. Sophomore CeCe Hancock serves as the get-it-and-go engine at guard.
In Eastern A, Lawrence Coach John Donato has one of the top young players in the state in sophomore center Nia Irving. Named the KVAC Player of the Year for a second straight season, she was nearly a 20-20 player (20.8 points and 19.9 rebounds per game).
Asked if he would rather have a young, talented squad or a veteran group, Donato didn’t hesitate.
“No question a veteran group. When it gets down to crunch time, the younger kids haven’t been in that situation so you don’t know how they’ll hold up,” Donato said. “They have to mature as an athlete. They have to feel the pressure of competing at a higher level. You don’t know that until you get there.”
Asked the same question, Lynne Hasson had a slightly different answer.
“The best-case scenario is a mix of both, which is what we have,” the first-year varsity coach said. “But if I had to choose, I’d take a young, talented team because by the time the tournament rolls around, they’re not young anymore.”
“Playing two games a week, and playing teams like McAuley and Cheverus and Gorham that throw stuff at you helps,” Henderson said.
Esposito experienced a full range of playoff emotions in Gorham’s 50-41 preliminary overtime victory Wednesday against Falmouth. After an 0-of-11 shooting stretch, she keyed a fourth-quarter comeback and finished with 21 points.
“I feel like I’m a freshman but I feel my role on the team doesn’t act like a freshman. I have to go out and be a team leader, and I think sometimes I fulfill that position and other times I get in my own head,” Esposito said.
Gorham Coach Laughn Berthiaume said Esposito, like the other top young talent, has learned how to play through mistakes.
“She’s competitive and she’s always trying to improve,” Berthiaume said.
Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or at: [email protected]