PORTLAND – Every day, said Hannah Cooke, she looks at the wall in the gymnasium at McAuley High and stares at an empty space.

It is surrounded by banners celebrating the Class A state championships won by McAuley in 2002 and 2003, the regional titles won by the Lions in 1999, 2000 and 2005.

“We need to fill that space,” said Cooke.

If preseason expectations mean anything, the Lions will have a very good chance to do that. They are led by a pair of Division I college prospects: Senior guard/forward Rebecca Knight is heading to the University of Maine next year, and junior center Alexa Coulombe has committed verbally to Boston College. They also have a cast of talented, dedicated players.

But first-year coach Amy Vachon, who played for her father Paul in Cony’s successful program, knows that nothing should be expected.

“We talk about it every day,” she said. “I mean, these girls haven’t won anything yet. None of these kids were here when they won it before. So it’s pretty easy to keep them hungry.

“They were hungry even before I came in. There are a lot of people saying a lot of things, that we should win by 50, stuff like that. The reality is our own expectations and goals. Those are the things we’ve got to focus on.”

And the players certainly recognize that.

“In the past,” said Knight, “we looked at what other people thought about us. Now we don’t listen to that stuff.”

They know the road to the Augusta Civic Center, the site of the Class A state final this season, won’t be smooth. Cheverus and Deering head a list of talented teams waiting to beat the Lions. But the Stags and Rams don’t face the scrutiny the Lions do.

Cheverus Coach Richie Ashley certainly looks at the Lions as the team to beat.

“We have a lot of good players; there are a lot of teams with good players like us, but we don’t have those two,” he said, noting Knight and Coulombe. And for good measure, he threw in freshman guard Allie Clement’s name, saying: “She’s going to be really, really good.”

Deering Coach Mike Murphy is simply glad the focus is on a team other than his, like it was the last two preseasons.

“We expect to be right back in it,” said Murphy. “But it’s nice to not have that pressure.”

The Lions know the pressure is there, but they are doing their best not to feel it.

“We don’t expect to be perfect,” said Coulombe, possibly the most intimidating defensive player in the state. At 6-foot-2 and quick on her feet, she averaged 5.2 blocks last year with a single-game high of 16, as well as 10.2 points and 11 rebounds.

“The main thing we’re striving for is excellence,” said Knight, who averaged 10.4 points and 7.4 rebounds and was an All-State selection last year despite dealing with ankle injuries. “We strive for it every day in practice. We want to make everything crisp.”

It all starts in practice, where the Lions push each other daily, especially defensively. And Vachon pushes them harder.

“When we do our layup lines, she wants us to take the layups as if we were in a game,” said Coulombe, who lives in Falmouth. “She wants us to go hard to the basket.”

And, she added, “This year when we leave practice we feel like we’re really prepared. We all know what we’re supposed to do.

“That way, when it gets down to the wire in a game, there’s no hesitation. Everything we do is like second nature.”

The players seem relaxed in the spotlight. They know what is expected of them and they know what they expect.

“We all know our end goal,” said Knight. “We have a poster in our locker room that says, ‘February vacation destination.’ It has a picture of the Cumberland County Civic Center.”

That’s the site of the Western Class A finals. The end goal actually goes a little beyond.

“Obviously, the state championship is our goal, it is every year,” said Cooke, a sophomore guard. “But also, our goal is to get better as a team and individually.”

Do that, said Vachon, and everything will fall into place.

“We can throw a lot of different things at teams,” she said. “We love to get up and down, we have a lot of good shooters, we have some height. It’s a matter of getting them to buy into playing as a team.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to say we’re one of the most talented teams, if not the most talented team, in the league. But talent doesn’t always win. And that’s what we’ve been talking about every day.

“We’ve got a ways to go yet. But if everything comes together, we’ll have a fantastic season.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]