GORHAM — While Class AA coaches noticed the improved play of the Gorham High boys’ basketball team over the summer months, Rams senior captain Tyler Haines was making his own observation.

The top teams that dominated AA in 2017-18 – Scarborough and South Portland in the South, defending state champ Edward Little, Portland and Windham in the North – each graduated at least three starters. Gorham, which was 7-11 in the regular season, returned almost its entire team.

“It sort of gives us confidence because the other teams obviously have missing pieces while we have our own team,” Haines said, “so we’re going to try to take advantage of that.”

The feeling is similar in Sanford, where all five starters return from a 6-12 team.

Several AA teams that had losing records last season, including Thornton Academy, Bonny Eagle, and Deering, have reasons to believe they will be improved based on returning talent. Same goes for Bangor, which returns forward Matt Fleming, a Maine Sunday Telegram All-State selection. The Rams finished 9-10 with playoff loss at Windham but have become a trendy pick to win AA North.

“I like my team a lot but that being said I think there are eight, nine pretty good teams in our league,” said South Portland Coach Kevin Millington, who graduated four starters that accounted for 77 percent of the Red Riots’ scoring.

“You see a lot of teams in the South like Gorham and Sanford that are much better and certainly Scarborough and Thornton are right there with us. Now Bangor’s one of the teams to beat (in the North).”

Coach Mark Karter works from the sidelines in an exhibition game against Brunswick. Many teams open their season Friday, but the Rams open Tuesday at home against Noble.

No one is predicting last year’s top teams will sink to the bottom of the standings.

Defending South champ Scarborough still has Nick Fiorillo, a 6-7 scoring machine. South Portland has enviable depth. Windham has size galore. Edward Little still has Telegram All-State pick Wol Maiwen controlling the paint. Portland’s top trio of seniors – Trey Ballew, Pedro Fonseca and Simon Chadbourne – all contributed as sophomores to the 2017 state title team.

But those teams just don’t seem quite as daunting, said Gorham junior guard Nick Strout, a 5-foot-11 sharpshooter who made 52 3-pointers last season.

“I think it’s evened out,” Strout said. “And I think mentality for us is we can go get some wins. That’s the game plan.”

Strout and Jordan Bretton, another 5-11 guard, are already in their second year as captains for the Rams. Haines and senior Tom Nelson are Gorham’s other captains.

“We have more experience on the court,” Bretton said. “Definitely as you grow up, one year makes a huge difference.”

What teams such as Gorham and Sanford still haven’t done is to come up with that signature win, the type that proves they belong in the upper tier.

In the preseason, Gorham scrimmaged Edward Little and lost in overtime after having an 11-point lead. Haines said that game showed Gorham still needs some “late-game learning.

“We can play a full three quarters but it all really comes down to that last eight minutes and just grinding it out,” he said. “It’s just showing that grit that I know we have. I just think it will come out a lot more now this year. We’re matured. We’re a whole year older now so there’s no excuses for that.”

Deering Coach Todd Wing said his team also fits the profile of a club that can turn last season’s competitive losses into this year’s close wins. The Rams return Ben Onek, a 6-5 senior forward who led the SMAA in scoring last season with more than 20 points per game.

“Last year’s sophomores couldn’t become juniors soon enough,” Wing said. “Last year we lost six games by seven points or less and we did that while really investing in the future. We knew our (current) junior class was strong so we wanted to give them the experience to go further.”

How much further? Time will tell. Let the games begin.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig