This basketball season will be different.

It had better be different, because if South Portland loses the Class AA boys’ basketball state championship to Portland for a third straight season, senior Connor Buckley might remain under his covers for a month.

Buckley and the rest of the Red Riots kicked off the winter sports season Monday afternoon inside Beal Gymnasium with their first practice, determined to exorcise memories of a ghastly 4-for-34 shooting performance in the first half of a championship game they lost 60-38 to Portland at the Augusta Civic Center.

“I think I stayed in bed for a week,” Buckley said before practice. “I was crushed. That was like, my one goal. When it didn’t happen, I just had to take a lot of time to think about what happened and keep that memory and emotion in me so I could use it to get better and not make the same mistakes this year.”

With the exception of girls’ hockey, now in its third week of practices, Monday was the first day of practice for high school winter sports teams in Maine. In South Portland, squeaking sneakers and thumping basketballs reverberated through the gym across the hall from indoor track athletes filling the weight and exercise rooms.

Riley Hasson plays soccer and baseball at South Portland in addition to basketball, “but the atmosphere around basketball in the winter is like none other in high school sports,” he said. “You’ve got the whole state coming to games on Friday nights.”

Buckley, Hasson and fellow seniors Liam Coyne and Noah Malone played significant roles in South Portland’s 17-4 season last winter. All but Buckley, then at Deering, suited up as sophomores when fourth-seeded South Portland extended heavily favored Portland to a second overtime before losing 52-50 in 2016.

“I’m sure they want it,” Malone said of the Bulldogs eyeing a third consecutive state title, “but they don’t have the pain of losing it twice. I think that gives us an extra edge on them.”

Coyne said he nearly enrolled at Greely this fall. He grew up in Cumberland and didn’t move to South Portland until after junior high. He even played summer basketball with Greely, only to decide he had unfinished business in Class AA.

“This one is personal this year,” Coyne said. “I came back here to get revenge on Portland, because I’m sick of losing in the states, especially to Portland.”

Whereas others may feel blue about the time change, long hours of darkness and the onset of cold weather, Coyne has an opposite reaction.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, winter’s coming! My favorite sport is right around the corner,’ ” he said. “It’s the best time of year. I love winter.”

Ten miles to the west, Michelle Rowe said she has been thinking about this day for “about eight months.”

Rowe, a forward, is the only senior on Gorham’s girls’ basketball team that enters the season as the two-time defending Class AA champion, with 42 consecutive wins. But Emily Esposito (a four-year All-State selection who now plays at Villanova), Kaylea Lundin and Kristen Curley all graduated.

“It’s a changing of the guard,” said Gorham Coach Laughn Berthiaume, who had 11 freshmen among the 20 players at Monday’s first day of tryouts.

And the Rams love it. “I’m super excited,” said Mackenzie Holmes, a 6-foot-2 junior center and returning All-State selection. “I know it’s going to be a change, a new group with a new dynamic. New girls are going to have to step into different roles. It’s going to be exciting to see how it plays out.”

Berthiaume knows it’s going to take time for his players to settle into new roles, especially for Holmes and Rowe, who will be expected to be vocal leaders.

“It’s definitely a new thing for me,” said Holmes, who is being recruited by numerous Division I schools. “I’ve always had Espo there to be that vocal leader on the court, and I was always the leader by example. But I think this year, girls are going to have to fill into new roles, myself included.”

Juniors Courtney Brent and Brittany Desjardin and sophomore Jacqui Hamilton gained valuable experience last year, as did all of the team’s reserves.

“They had such a great opportunity in practice every day to go up against those kids,” said Berthiaume. “I think they’re more than ready to go ahead and step into those leadership roles.”

Berthiaume said the start of this season is more typical than last year, when the Rams were loaded with experience.

“You have to understand we’re starting over,” he said. “We’re going to be a different make-up. It’s not like we’re going out and doing everything we did last year.”

And that’s what excites Rowe. “I think, because of what we lost, people might underestimate us at first,” she said.

Likewise, in Cumberland, the Greely girls were eager to get to work. “Everyone’s been chomping at the bit,” said Coach Todd Flaherty.

Since winning the Class B state championship in 2015, Greely has advanced to the Class A South final each of the last two years. Only two starters return, junior Anna DeWolfe and sophomore Brooke Obar, and they’ll look to carry the Rangers back into the playoffs. But they’ll need help.

“This group hasn’t proven anything,” said Flaherty. “We’re so young. We’re going to have to have inexperienced girls play valuable minutes. But we had a good summer and really came together as a team. We’re just going to be a different team this year. We still have the skill and athleticism, we’re just not as experienced.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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