Coach Mike Giordano talks to players Monday at the Scarborough High girls’ basketball practice. Monday was the first day of practice at Maine high schools for most winter sports. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

SCARBOROUGH — Mike Giordano has been coaching basketball for 24 years. The first day of practice is always special to him.

“I’ve got butterflies,” he said Monday afternoon as he waited for his Scarborough High girls’ basketball team to enter the gym. “Just like I did the first day I started 24 years ago.”

This year is a little different. The Red Storm are the defending Class AA South champions. And with eight players returning from the team that lost 55-45 to Oxford Hills in the state title game, expectations are much higher than they were a year ago.

And then, as Giordano said to his players while they stretched in a circle around him, “We’ve had adversity even before we started.”

Scarborough’s Julia Freeman (32), shown during a game last winter, suffered a knee injury last weekend during a showcase tournament. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Senior guard/forward Julia Freeman, a returning SMAA first-team all-star who led Scarborough with 12.7 points a game last year, suffered a knee injury last weekend while playing in a showcase tournament for her club team. She was on crutches at practice Monday and said she will have an MRI done on Tuesday. Freeman she would likely miss a month.

“At the minimum,” she said. “That’s what I’m wishing for. I would do anything to be out there right now but I’m going to support this team the whole way.”

Monday was the first day that boys’ and girls’ basketball, boys’ ice hockey, wrestling, swimming,  cheering and indoor track teams could practice at Maine high schools. Ski teams can begin practice on Nov. 25.

While Freeman couldn’t practice with her teammates, she said, “My excitement is just as high, just being back in the gym.”

Her teammates know her loss presents a challenge. But they were thrilled to be together again.

Scarborough senior Madison Blanche explains a drill during basketball practice Monday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“We’ve always been a tight-knit team,” said senior guard Madison Blanche. “We’re all so close and have such good team chemistry. It’s exciting to be together as a team today.”

Giordano said the team has to approach the season a little differently this year. “We’ve got the target on our backs versus chasing somebody,” he said. “So we have to approach it differently. You’ve got to be more focused, got to understand that you’re going to get everybody’s best shot when you play them. And you’ve got to be prepared.”

Senior guard Bella Dickinson, who has been part of three consecutive softball state championships teams, knows what that’s like. “Every game, you have to come out with the same intensity,” she said.

At Portland High, boys’ coach Joe Russo didn’t know until about three weeks ago that he would be back for his 30th season as the Bulldogs’ head man.

That’s when he got the results of his last cancer treatment. “I’m in remission,” he said, adding that he has another test in three months.

Portland High boys’ basketball coach Joe Russo will be back for his 30th season. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Russo was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Large B Cell Lymphoma in February 2018. He said he now takes his coaching career “year-by-year.”

Last year he coached the Bulldogs to the Class AA North semifinals, where they lost to eventual state champ Bangor. When his last test results came back clean, he said. “I got the mental anguish out of the way. Then I asked, ‘What am I going to do? I think I’ll coach another year.’ ”

This year’s Portland team will be unlike any other he’s ever had, he said, with very little returning varsity experience. And he’s looking forward to it.

“I guess I’ll have to be creative,” he said. “And that’s exciting. It’ll be a challenge. I’ll have to get the kids to focus and develop and build and I know they’ll be on board with that because that’s who they are. That’s going to be fun, to watch us grow.”

And then there’s Bill Goodman. Last winter was the first time since 2008 that he wasn’t a head coach. Goodman had been the head coach at Maine Girls’ Academy when it abruptly closed in July 2018.

Monday, he opened his first practice as the head coach at Cheverus, the school’s fourth head coach in four years. Goodman brings a 172-35 record into the season, with three state championships.

Last year, he was an assistant to Mike Murphy at Deering.

“That was good,” he said. “Coach Murphy made me feel like I was part of that team. It really helped me get through a difficult time.”

But he wanted to be a head coach. “I love coaching,” he said. “And I missed being a head coach.”

Goodman coached the Stags through the summer and liked what he saw. “I don’t know how many wins we’ll have,” he said. “But I know the girls will try really hard and they’re going to compete.”

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