Greely High boys’ basketball coach Ken Marks gathered close to 50 players at center court Monday. He went over what would happen over the next two hours, and he told them that after today’s practice, they would know if they made one of three teams.

It was a scene played out in high school gyms across the state as the winter sports season officially opened. Basketball, boys’ hockey, indoor track, swimming, wrestling and cheerleading could all begin practice Monday. Girls’ hockey started official practices on Nov. 8 while skiing’s official start date is Dec. 6.

For basketball, boys’ ice hockey, swimming, wrestling and indoor track, the regular season can begin on Dec. 10. Girls’ ice hockey can start its games for real this Friday.

“The first day is always exciting and hectic,” said Marks.

It’s the start of a new season and the possibilities it can bring. But before Marks can think of that, he must do something no coach likes to do – cut players.

“It’s awful,” said Marks.

At least in basketball, the first two days of practice serve as tryouts. Varsity coaches pretty much know who their key players are. With a veteran team like the Rangers, it’s filling out the reminder of the roster. For the most part, tryouts are used to determine the junior varsity and freshman teams.

“It’s hard saying goodbye to kids at this level,” said Marks. “For most of them, it’s usually the last time playing basketball. We talk to each kid and give the reason behind our decisions, but it’s never easy.”

Marks and his staff weren’t just watching players dribble and shoot. They were teaching the beginnings of Greely’s offense.

“The first week is pretty scripted,” said Marks. “We start teaching right away. It’s kind of hard to get things done with 45 or 50 kids.”

After today’s cut, the Rangers will get more involved in the offense. Two players who have been eagerly waiting for the official start of the season were returning starters Sam Johnston and Tanner Storey.

“We’ve had captains’ practice for a couple of weeks,” said Johnston. “We’ve been trying to get everyone ready.”

Johnston said one thing he wants to concentrate on in the first week is defense. Getting a focus on that part of the game early could go a long way in setting a tone for the season. He said, “We’re in good condition. I think our offense will be fine.”

With a solid nucleus, the Rangers will be working toward a deep playoff run.

“We have a good team,” said Storey. “The pieces are there. It’s just a matter of putting them together and unifying as a team. After losing to Cape Elizabeth the last three years in the tournament semifinals, the motivation is there. We want to get past our semifinal slump.”

That’s something to be concerned with in February. For the moment, the Rangers and other teams are getting their basketball legs and finding out just what the makeup of their squads will be.

Still, it’s fun to look ahead.

“We’re going to have a group of young kids who have the potential to be very good,” said Marks. “We will have a good mix of talented veterans and newcomers. We can start a team of players 6-foot-4 and taller.”

 

BOYS’ HIGH SCHOOL hockey teams also began practicing Monday in rinks across Maine. At the Cumberland County Civic Center, Cape Elizabeth hit the ice with a new coaching staff of familiar faces.

Head coach Bill LeBlond, 53, is back coaching after a 16-year layoff. He last coached in 1994-95, guiding the Scarborough boys to the Class B state title. He replaces Jason Tremblay, who resigned.

“I missed it and I wanted to get back into it,” said LeBlond, whose son William plays on the team. “William came home one day and said the coach had resigned, and he had a look on his face like, ‘What do you think?’ “

LeBlond’s staff includes former North Yarmouth Academy assistant Steve Lawrence and former University of Maine star Barrett Heisten.

Heisten, 30, helped lead the Black Bears to the NCAA championship in 1999. He played eight pro seasons, from 2000 to 2008, including a 10-game stint with the New York Rangers in the 2001-02 season.

Heisten and his wife, Courtney have lived in Alaska the past four years. The couple, and their five-month-old son, Brodie, recently moved to Maine. Heisten heard Le-Blond was looking for a coach and jumped at the chance.

“I always want to be part of hockey,” Heisten said.

The Capers had 26 players on the ice Monday. Cape is expected to contend for the Western B title with Greely, Yarmouth, and York.

The state Class A defending champion, Biddeford, was on the ice at 5:30 a.m. Monday, as Coach Rich Reissfelder welcomed 47 players to the Tigers’ first practice.

“We had a full rink, that’s for sure,” Reissfelder said. “It’s a good problem to have.”

The winter sports season has begun and will continue until champions are crowned in February and March.

 

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at: [email protected]

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]