Margaret McNeil and her Yarmouth girls’ basketball teammates would have made a run at a Class B state title in a normal season. This winter, the Clippers will be happy to play any games they can. File photos.

After weeks of fits and starts, obsession over the colors green and yellow and envy over watching games start up in other counties, the COVID-19-delayed winter sports season was set to commence in Forecaster Country Monday evening when the newly-formed Cheverus/Yarmouth boys’ hockey team (see story) hosted St. Dom’s.

The winter sports season, which won’t feature a postseason this year, began with limited skills-and-drills back in December, but that didn’t last even two weeks before Cumberland County received a “yellow” designation from the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded system, meaning students were not allowed to participate in any school-based activities, such as sports, drama club or music.

After hoping for green, but staying yellow for multiple weeks, local athletes and coaches got good news Jan. 20 when the Maine Principals’ Association, along with state agencies, announced that teams in yellow counties could begin practicing immediately and ramp up to playing countable games, with a date of Feb. 8 selected by area school superintendents.

While The Forecaster isn’t running our traditional, in-depth previews this year for every sport at each school in our coverage area, due to the limited preseason and unique nature of this particular season, we can tell you that local coaches are very eager to get on the court, ice, etc., and here’s a look at a few teams and their prospects:

Jared Johnson and his Waynflete boys’ basketball teammates were regional finalists last winter and will be fun to watch this year.

Waynflete’s boys’ basketball team excelled last winter, going a program-best 17-1 in the regular season and advancing to the Class C South Final where the Flyers were finally eliminated by Winthrop.

This year’s team has some new faces, as well as returning stars and will once again be a formidable foe.

“I expect Chris Saade, Jared Johnson and Aidan Kieffer to have strong senior seasons,” said Waynflete’s longtime coach Rich Henry, now in his 17th season. “I think Henry Hart is ready to step into a significant role at the point guard position and we have three players who were on the JV last year who should make contributions: Matt Adey, Cole Isherwood and Ed Cox. A newcomer to watch is Nico Kirby, who as a freshman, should be able to help us.

“I’m just happy to be able to get together with the team, practice and hopefully get into competitive situations with other schools. The desire is to have something that seems more ‘normal,’ particularly in the long winters we have here in Maine where high school basketball is such a big deal. I just hope we’re able to have some consistency in terms of practices and game schedule, mostly for the seniors, so that they don’t have to look back at this time as a total washout from an athletic/camaraderie perspective.”

Another powerhouse boys’ team that fell just short of a state title a year ago is South Portland, which went undefeated in the regular year and won its first 20 games before dropping an overtime heartbreaker to Thornton Academy in the Class AA South Final to finish 20-1.

Red Riots coach Kevin Millington, entering his sixth season with his alma mater, has different goals than most seasons.

“For us, our number one goal is to make this is a positive of an experience as we possibly can,” Millington said. “First and foremost, I want this for our seniors. They have had it pretty rough. They found themselves behind a pretty talented class of 2020 and sort of had to wait their turn only to have that turn disrupted by the pandemic. So a lot of our focus is on those guys.

“What we missed out on this summer was the relationship building. I personally would like to get to know the young kids and their families better. Summer is pretty laid back and I think that is often where those relationships are formed and where your team often becomes connected in a way that translates into the winter.”

South Portland returns five seniors who have been with the program all four years: Alex Bambile, Mekhi Bitjoka, Nic Borelli, Luca Desjardins and T.J. Vose. Underclassmen to watch include juniors Mayen Ayuel and Owen Maloney and sophomores J.P. Estrella and Jaelen Jackson.

The Red Riots won’t have any breathers in its abbreviated schedule, as they will battle the likes of traditional rivals Cheverus, Deering and Portland, as well as Falmouth and Scarborough.

“Philosophically we always expect to compete at a high level,” said Millington. “I know South Portland is not unique in that regard, but we will approach games in the same way as we always have with the only exception being we will try to play more kids. We don’t feel that it is fair to seniors to approach it any other way.”

Just a few miles away at Scarborough, the Red Storm boys are coming off a 9-10 campaign, which ended with a loss to Bonny Eagle in the Class AA South quarterfinals. Scarborough will be led this winter by Adam Lewis, Rowan McDonald, Jack Simonton and point guard Zander Haskell.

“I’m grateful to get on the court because there was a point where I wasn’t sure we’d get to play,” said Phil Conley, now in his fifth season as Scarborough coach. “Obviously, it’s a different year. We’re trying to stay as healthy as possible. ”

The Red Storm’s schedule includes the cream of the crop in Class AA South: Gorham, South Portland and Thornton Academy. While Scarborough isn’t gearing up for a tournament run this winter, this year’s experience can only help the program going forward.

“It’s a pretty young team this year,” Conley said. “We have just three seniors. We have three freshmen on varsity and a strong junior class. We can build for next year, but I think we can be competitive this year. We’re treating it like a normal season. I’m looking forward to it. I know that the kids are up for (the tough schedule). Whoever we play we’ll be happy to play.”

On the girls’ side, Yarmouth might have been the favorite to win the regional or even Class B state title this winter, if it were a normal year with a postseason. After shocking top-ranked Freeport in last year’s semifinals and taking eventual state champion Wells to the wire in the regional final, before falling to finish 12-9, the Clippers return a strong core of talent, including several players who will still be on the roster next winter, when hopefully, life will be back to normal.

“Our goal this year is to simply give our players an experience that makes them feel whole again,” said Yarmouth’s third-year coach David Cousins. “An experience that is competitive yet realistic. An experience that is challenging yet fun and an experience that allows our players to feel the camaraderie of being a team once again.”

The Clippers feature seniors Kathryn Keaney, Calin McGonagle and Margaret McNeil, juniors Katelyn D’Appolonia and Maya Panozzo and sophomore Ava Feeley, all of whom played key roles a year ago.

“Our girls have come into this unique situation and have given it their all, have never complained and are competing as if tournament seedings are still on the line,” Cousins said. “Our coaching staff applauds their efforts and their mental toughness to overcome all the obstacles thrown at them. These players are to be admired for handling this with such positivity.”

On the ice

The Portland/Deering boys’ hockey team went 8-12 a year ago, reaching the Class A state quarterfinals before losing to eventual state runner-up Scarborough. The Bulldogs will have an interim coach this season in Matt King, who is stepping in for Jeff Beaney, who is taking the year off.

Portland/Deering returns goalie Ryan Becker, as well as talented leaders Nick Becker, Carlos Braceras, Max Cheever, Nick McGonagle and Danny Tocci. Keep an eye on freshman Conor Greene, who could quickly become a household name.

“I’m hoping the kids are able to have a little sense of normalcy during this challenging time,” King said. “They are thrilled to be at the rink, competing and playing a sport they love. They are missing out on the locker room bonding time because they can enter the rink only 10 minutes before ice time and have to leave immediately after practice, but they have not complained at all. They’re excited to be out there and they are working and competing extremely hard.”

Portland/Deering’s Caroline Lerch will be one of the state’s best girls’ hockey players this winter.

The Portland/Deering girls, who went 11-8 last year, losing to York in the South Region quarterfinals, return four top seniors, Kim Clifford on defense, Lucy Howe at defense and forward and forwards Caroline Lerch and Margaret Smith.

“Entering this unique season, I’m hoping to be able to provide a place for all the girls to be able to get out and be with their friends, have fun and be able to compete in a sport they like,” said fourth-year coach Tom Clifford. “For the seniors, the hope is they get to have an enjoyable time after four amazing years playing for the Portland/Deering hockey team and they are able to finish their high school hockey career on the ice.”

Still waiting

One sport that hasn’t started yet is wrestling. Last week, the MPA’s Wrestling Committee opted to put off making a final decision on the fate of the sport during the coronavirus pandemic until reconvening on Feb. 22, which is the day when the already delayed season was supposed to start.

“We know the guidelines haven’t changed. It’s still a high-risk sport,” said Mike Bisson, the MPA’s assistant executive director who serves on the wrestling committee.

Bisson said as the committee discussed the situation, they felt, “Why do we need to make a decision today? Let the coaches and kids get together to do socially distanced training, and maybe by the end of February it could change.”

One team closely awaiting word to its fate is Deering. The Rams will again have Ryan Hutchins as coach, but he steps back into an assistant role this year as Chris Smith, a former Deering standout and four-time state champion, will become the head coach.

“Right now we are practicing in-person, outside and inside, a couple days a week and having on-line workouts too,” Hutchins said. “It’s been a tough battle this season on many fronts, but we are staying positive and making the best of the opportunities we get. It is definitely a tough balance between wanting to make sure the kids are getting the opportunities to be with their teammates and gain all the valuable lessons that come with our sport, while also making sure they are all safe physically.

“For now, we are just focused on working with our kids to stay healthy, work hard, and enjoy our time together as a team, even though we know that the possibility of any competitions happening is still up in the air. We feel especially for our seniors, three of whom have been with us since they were freshmen when we only had nine kids. They worked their tails off and not only did they all improve tremendously, but they were the catalysts for our team growing to 25 last season. No one can take away what they have accomplished and learned from wrestling. Obviously, it would be great to see them get on the mat again, but ultimately, the lessons they have learned from wrestling are what will help them as they enter the next stage of their lives, whether or not we get to have matches.

“Our wrestlers, and the wrestlers throughout Maine who have continued working and striving to get better in the face of all that has happened to them this past year, have already proven they are stronger than any competition record could show.”

Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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