As a member of the Portland/Deering girls’ hockey team, Maeve LeClair is quite familiar with losing.

LeClair, a senior forward who attends Casco Bay High, has suffered through three dismal seasons – including last year’s 1-17 record.

“Losing was the norm,” LeClair said. “Everyone goes into the locker room and they’re fine. That’s what ended up happening as the years went on.”

This season things are different for Portland/Deering, which experienced an influx of talent and likely will join Cheverus/Kennebunk (9-10) as teams on the rise in the South. The two Portland-based programs could rival regional powers Falmouth and Scarborough – which have met in the Southern final the past four years – for a spot in the state championship.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to say Falmouth or Scarborough is ready to be knocked off that pedestal,” said Portland/Deering’s new coach, Tom Clifford. “We’re still in the process of learning how to win.”

Since LeClair joined Portland/Deering in 2014, the Bulldogs have lost 44 of 54 games. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2012 and never have won a state title. But this season Portland/Deering will add seven incoming freshmen as well as a North Yarmouth Academy transfer Emily Demers – a junior forward from Deering High who is a dangerous scoring threat.

Clifford expects most of the freshmen to play significant roles – most notably Emma Merrill, a speedy skater from Portland High who anchors the defense. Clifford’s daughter, Kim – a freshman at Baxter Academy – is also a defenseman on the team.

“We will be scary different from last year,” said Clifford, who coached the South Portland boys for 11 years before taking a hiatus. “I’ve been trying to kind of keep it quiet, but then we went out and beat Scarborough.”

On Nov. 11, the Bulldogs defeated Scarborough 6-4 in a preseason game.

“After we won it was crazy,” Demers said. “It was like, ‘Here we go. We’re just going to go up from here.’ ”

LeClair, who was away touring colleges during that game, said she couldn’t believe it when she got the news.

“I was awestruck. I had never seen numbers like that from my team,” LeClair said. “The thing that stands out to me that’s different from past years is just the excitement to play and work hard to get better.”

Cheverus/Kennebunk Coach Scott Rousseau, entering his second year with the team, said his Stags were in a similar position of rebuilding last season.

Coming off an 11-0 loss to Falmouth in the 2015-16 regional semifinals, Cheverus/Kennebunk took the Yachtsmen into overtime in their second game of the season last year before losing, 6-5. But their greatest feat happened almost two months later on Jan. 23 when they defeated Scarborough 3-2 in overtime, rectifying a 3-0 loss to the Red Storm a week earlier.

“As a coaching staff we thought we were good enough to start winning,” Rousseau said. “But they didn’t really believe in themselves until that game. That was the moment where they said, ‘Wow, we’re not a doormat. We can beat these teams.’ ”

Since 2012, Falmouth and Scarborough have taken turns exchanging places in the state final, with each programs capturing three regional championships.

Now the Stags are no longer underdogs, thanks largely to Kennebunk sophomore Abby Lamontagne, who scored the winner against Scarborough, and finished last season with 27 goals and 13 assists as a freshman. And Rousseau said he expects Cheverus junior Zoe Mazur to rival Courtney Brochu of Scarborough as the top defenseman in the south.

“Last season we focused on a lot of skill components,” Lamontagne said. “This season we already have those basic skills. They’re not perfect but we’ll pick up where we finished last year.”

“What Cheverus did last year was kind of like their first step, and this year we’re going to see a much bigger step,” said Falmouth Coach Rob Carrier, whose team beat Scarborough in last season’s regional title game before falling to St. Dominic in the state final. “Portland might be in Cheverus’ position last year where they weren’t a playoff team and now they’re going to be one.”

The Casco Bay Hockey Association feeds talent to both the Portland/Deering and Cheverus/Kennebunk programs. Demers and Merrill of Portland/Deering and Lamontagne and Mazur of Cheverus/Kennebunk competed on the under-14 team that advanced to the 2016 Tier II national championships in Burlington, Vermont.

Cheverus/Kennebunk and Portland/Deering will face each other Dec. 9 at their shared home – Troubh Ice Arena.

“They’ve suffered for a couple years but now they’re excited,” Clifford said. “Winning cures all.”


filed under: