Paige Cote, a 6-foot-2 senior center for Sanford, has earned a scholarship to play at the University of New Hampshire. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

SANFORD — There were times, Paige Cote admits, when she knew her friends were off doing something fun. Maybe roller skating. Maybe seeing a movie. She was on a basketball court, possibly alone, throwing up shots, working on dribbling, practicing moves.

“I’d think to myself, oh, they’re out doing whatever it was,” said Cote, now a senior at Sanford High. “Now that I’m here, in this position, I’m grateful I made those tough decisions. It paid off.”

Indeed it did. Cote, a 6-foot-2 (or taller, depending on who you talk to) center for the Spartans, recently signed a national letter of intent to play basketball at the University of New Hampshire. She is the first girls’ basketball player from Sanford to receive a Division I scholarship in 35 years, since Kelly LaFountain went to the University of Maine.

Those who have watched Cote play through the years say she earned that scholarship, putting in extra hours in the gym and getting up at 6 a.m. in the summer to work on her strength and agility.

Paige Cote averaged 17.8 points and 9.1 rebounds as a junior and was selected as an SMAA first-team all-star. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“From her freshman year on up, she has put in the work and has really wanted to do this,” said Sanford Coach Rossie Lontine-Kearson, a former basketball player at UMaine. “We had conversations about it. I told her (a scholarship) was attainable but that there was definitely a lot of hard work that had to go into it.”

Playing in the southwestern corner of the state, Cote did not receive a lot of media attention. But she always had great potential. And she blossomed playing for the Maine Firecrackers club team, going against former Gorham standout Mackenzie Holmes (now earning starts at Indiana University as a freshman) for the last two years.

“Playing against Mackenzie, Paige learned how to fight back and be more physical,” said Firecrackers Coach Brian Clement. “She runs the floor well for her size, but she embraces physical play. And that will help get her on the court early (in college).”

Cote said she was fortunate to go against Holmes in practice for the Firecrackers. “It changed me as a player, made me more aggressive,” she said. “It helped me grow into the player I am today. When you have to go against someone your size who is also super talented, it makes you work a lot harder to become a better player.”

Maureen Magarity, the women’s basketball coach at UNH, called Cote “a tremendous add to our family. We’re lucky to keep her close to home.”

Cote also had offers from Holy Cross, Elon, Merrimack, St. Anselm and Hofstra. That she would chose a school just 40 minutes away from her home surprised even Cote. But she said she felt an immediate connection to the campus and the team on her visit. “Even on my first visit, I knew that was the place for me,” Cote said.

Magarity is glad Cote felt that way. With UNH’s leading inside player, former Greely standout Ashley Storey, graduating, there will be an immediate opening to slide into. “I think Paige can come in and help us immediately as a freshman,” said Magarity. “Paige has such a tremendous upside. She’s only going to continue to get better.”

Cote, who is ranked second academically in her class, was a first-team all-SMAA selection last year when she averaged 17.8 points and 9.1 rebounds and hit 75.5 percent of her foul shots.

Lontine-Kearson said Sanford’s offense will again revolve around Cote, who has learned to become a much better passer in the low post. He envisions a lot of inside-out play, with Cote finding open teammates.

Scarborough Coach Mike Giordano recently saw Sanford scrimmage and came away very impressed with Cote. “She is so much stronger with the ball in her hands,” he said. “She really is an underrated passer. She’s an unselfish kid. They need to lean on her for scoring, but if  you try to double team her, she’ll find the open player.”

Cote began playing basketball when she was in fourth grade. Soon after, she gave up both soccer and softball to concentrate on one sport.

“It was something I became good at,” she said. “And I met so many people. Basketball has been a very rewarding experience for me.”

She hopes younger players in Sanford’s program see what all her work has led to. Earning a Division I scholarship, she said, is worth everything you give up.

“It’s a really validating feeling,” said Cote. “As many recruits would understand, you put in so much work that it’s nice to have it pay off and that people really want you to play for them.”

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