The days of young girls’ basketball players having to wait their turn is over in the Southwestern Maine Athletics Association.

Especially prominent this season is a sophomore class led by returning All-SMAA first-team choice Emily Esposito of Gorham High, league-leading scorer Alisha Aube of Westbrook, and the Deering tandem of Amanda Brett and Tasia Titherington.

In the case of those four players, they are doing more than playing. They have taken on leadership roles for competitive teams.

“There are a lot of good young players, and I just think it’s one of the high waves of kids who work on their games a lot in the offseason,” said Windham Coach Brody Artes.

Gorham and Deering are 12-2 and are among the top four teams in the Western Class A Heal point rankings.

“I think we can go all the way if we work hard and do what we know how to do and go for it,” Titherington said.

SOPHOMORES GALORE

Fifteen of the league’s 16 teams have at least one sophomore on the varsity roster (Marshwood has no underclass players). Ten teams have at least three, and 46 sophomores are on SMAA varsity rosters, according to the league’s website.

The sheer quantity is interesting, but it’s the quality that’s most impressive.

The athletic, dedicated and relentless Esposito is the class leader. She is being recruited by several Division I colleges. A representative from St. Joseph’s (Pennsylvania), a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, was on hand for Gorham’s comeback win Monday at Thornton Academy when Esposito scored 25 points.

After averaging 17.6 points (third in the league) and 9.1 rebounds (second) last season, Esposito has worked to improve. Obviously stronger through her shoulders, she finishes better at the rim, and she also has extended her shooting range. She’s second in the league in scoring (16.3), third in rebounding (8.5), leads in steals (3.6), and adds 2.6 assists. And Gorham is winning more games.

“I thought I had a decent first season, but I didn’t want to just rest on that for the next three years,” Esposito said. “I definitely have seen that with other people before me and I didn’t want that to happen. When you have a really good spot and you can get to an even better spot, you kind of learn to push past your limits.”

Esposito is joined in Gorham’s starting lineup by two other sophomores – point guard Kaylea Lundin and forward Kristen Curley. Classmate Erin Esty is a regular off the bench.

For Deering, Brett is one of the league’s best post-up threats (11.1 points, 7.1 rebounds per game), and Titherington (12.8 ppg) and classmate Abby Ramirez form one of the SMAA’s most versatile backcourts.

Of Brett, Deering Coach Mike Murphy said, “Last year there was a lot of panic, and this year she has the behavior and the mind-set of ‘I own the paint.’ ”

South Portland is fifth in Western Class A with an 11-3 record. For the second year in a row, Lydia Henderson, a sophomore, is directing the show at the point and providing tough on-the-ball defense.

At Westbrook, Aube is carrying the scoring load (19.5 points per game) while making a league-leading 2.6 3-pointers per game for a team that is 7-7 after going 4-14 last season.

“Aube, she’s had a phenomenal year,” Artes said. “It seems like every time you look she’s scoring in the mid-20s.”

Other sophomores who have been making regular contributions include: Ally Tillotson of McAuley, a tough defender off the bench; scoring threat Brooke Dawson of Cheverus; Katherine Johnson, a slashing scorer at Portland; tough rebounder Brooke Malone of Scarborough; Isabella Robinson, who is one of Thornton’s top reserves; Danasia Fennie of Westbrook; and Windham point guard Mya Mannette.

SOPHOMORE SLUMP?

Murphy says he always worries that success as a freshman can stunt development.

“That second year, that sophomore jinx, or whatever you call it, it’s real,” he said. “They become complacent, and in reality, the freshman year they’re surprising people and then they get a little lax and teams are paying a little more attention, and the next thing you know it’s a miserable year.”

Brett and Titherington heard Murphy’s warnings – often – and took them to heart.

“I knew I had to work on more things offseason, just get in better shape, in order to improve,” Brett said.

Titherington’s biggest adjustment this year has been a change in her role.

As a freshman, Deering’s success depended heavily on Titherington’s ball handling. The Rams went 10-10 and reached the regional quarterfinals.

“She basically carried the load, bringing the ball up, me demanding what most people do out of a point guard,” Murphy said. “There was not another kid in the league that could have done what she did.”

This season, Ramirez (from Portland High) and Lodia Ismail (from Cheverus) transferred to Deering, giving the Rams a wealth of ball handlers.

“I think not being a point guard all the time actually helps me,” Titherington said. “I can go down the court and be ready to get the ball, but having to learn every play in a new area was kind of difficult for me.”

Scarborough forward Brooke Malone joined Aube, Brett, Esposito, Henderson and Robinson on last season’s SMAA all-rookie team.

Titherington was among the league leaders in points, 3-point field goals and free-throw percentage but was not an all-rookie pick.

Malone made her mark as a tenacious, undersized forward (she’s 5-7) with a knack for rebounding. She’s doing the same this year, but her path is clogged more often, she said.

“I feel like after your first year and your name gets out there and (opponents) note it, there’s more of a target to box you out or not let you get as many shots,” she said. “They pick up on that, so it’s tougher this year.”

Titherington has felt similar pressure.

“I get guarded really tight and I get really aggravated with it, but I have faith in my team that they can do the work if I’m getting guarded,” Titherington said.

REASONS FOR EARLY SUCCESS

Many high school coaches cringe as they say “AAU” out loud, yet there’s no denying offseason programs provide significant playing opportunities.

“As good and bad as AAU is, kids are coming in more confident,” said South Portland Coach Lynne Hasson. “And as it’s developed, it’s almost more acceptable and expected to have kids playing as freshmen and sophomores. In the past, you would think of giving them time to develop.”

Hasson added, “I know with Lydia Henderson and my (current) freshmen, they have the confidence and the knowledge to be on the court.”

Brett, who is a year-round player, says AAU ball does only so much and is not a guarantee of high school success.

“It helps you to get seen by colleges and to travel, but it’s not as structured,” Brett said. “You just play your own game sometimes. In high school you have structure, plays to run.”

Artes and Murphy both pointed to physical maturation as another reason why girls are able to play at a high level as freshmen and sophomores.

“Girls tend to be pretty well developed and mature when they come into high school, and they’re able to physically compete and be successful against juniors and seniors,” Artes said.

Murphy points to other issues that are more troublesome: fewer kids sticking with athletics, which results in a smaller pool of possible varsity players; and what he termed an erosion of skill level.

“So if you’re young and have put in the time and have the skill, you’ll get varsity time,” Murphy said.

Players like Esposito, Brett and Titherington would point to another reason, one to be applauded in any season: the willingness to work on their games.

“To continue to succeed I knew I had to work as hard as I did, if not harder,” Esposito said.