From the outside, it was easy to see the losses uncharacteristically mounting for the Deering High girls’ basketball team.

On the inside, Rams Coach Mike Murphy understood the reasons why his group went 0-19 in 2019-20, and then dropped their first two games during this year’s pandemic-shortened season to run the losing streak to 22 games.

“Last year, we didn’t play any cupcakes all year long. That AA North division was loaded, we didn’t play out of our class. It was a tough schedule and we were inexperienced,”  Murphy said.

Plus, the team returned one starter, “who was a rebounder, so we didn’t have any scoring or a point guard and it was struggle city, but we made huge strides. The strides just didn’t equate to Ws.”

The progress was evident in the last two games the Rams played in 2019-20. They led Portland at the half in the regular-season finale, and then, because every AA team made the tournament, led No. 1 Oxford Hills at the half. Oxford Hills ended up beating Portland in the AA North final and went on to win the state title.

And, in this year’s first two games, Deering again led at halftime, 20-9 and 28-12, both against a solid South Portland team, only to end up losing by three and six points.

The losing streak is finally over. Deering beat Cape Elizabeth, a Class B team, 54-32, on Tuesday.

Murphy credited the win – and the improvement – to both improved play by returning players who refused to quit when the going got tough last year and a talented group of six freshmen, three of whom are already making significant contributions.

Senior center Gloria Muka is the most experienced player, having played a key supporting role as a sophomore when Deering made a surprise run to the North final. Junior Ella McGowan and sophomore Nyahbana Lia “both saw significant minutes in a miserable season, but we were just overmatched,” and are now better prepared. McGowan and Lia had 13 and 12 points, respectively, in the win against Cape.

Murphy said junior Yipsi Sibo deserves credit for putting in the time and effort to improve her game and become a guiding force for the underclassmen.

Then there are the freshmen, led by guards Shay Rosenthal, Natalie Santiago and Maya Gayle. Gayle scored 10 points in the win.

Murphy said he felt the biggest thing his young team had to learn was “how to win.” In other words, to understand what constitutes a good shot, or a proper pass, in a close game. This year can help in that development.

“There’s no tournament, no Heal points, but you still have to learn to play when both sides are organized and both sides are trying to do the same thing,” Murphy said.

THE PORTLAND BOYS are another team making strides. The Bulldogs, AA state champions in 2016 and 2017, won just three games last season and ended the year with a 77-22 loss to eventual state champion Edward Little in a playoff game.

This year, Portland started with two wins against Cheverus and took a 2-1 record into Friday’s home game against South Portland. The Red Riots beat Portland earlier in the week, 67-47.

“These kids are really into it and having a good time, plus they’re feeling good about being able to play,” said Joe Russo, Portland’s veteran coach. “They’re playing for the alumni, saying, ‘Hey, we can do better than this.'”

Russo said senior guards Jake Bouchard, Sam Gerber and Gabe Russell deserve much of the credit for setting a positive tone. Wani Donato adds another scoring threat.

Portland also has some added size this year with 6-foot-3 freshman Jeissy Khamis and 6-3 Jose Kiala.

“They’ve been getting better and better and giving me great minutes, so I’m really happy with them,” Russo said.

Portland has had to shift its home games and practices to its high school gym. The Portland Expo is being converted to a mass COVID-19 vaccination site.

“It’s a smaller court. It’s a legal size, but it’s the smallest possible legal size,” Russo said.

THE GORHAM BOYS are off to a fast start by playing fast. The Rams were 4-0 entering Friday’s game at Bonny Eagle, coming off Wednesday’s 90-64 home win against the Scots. That followed a pair of 60-plus point efforts in wins against Scarborough.

“We have a group that really has no clear center and we have some younger kids who have played well, so we’re trying to play an uptempo game and I think they enjoy playing it,” said Coach Mark Karter. “A lot of pressure defense and more freedom on offense.”

In the first win against Scarborough, senior Bode Meader went off for 28 points, but balanced scoring has been more common. Gorham had five players in double figures in the second Scarborough game. In Wednesday’s win, Meader scored 18 points and fellow seniors Grant Nadeau (19) and Garrett Smith (16) also had big nights.

The Rams were 11-9 and advanced to the AA South semifinals last year. They would have been considered among the top threats for a regional title this year if postseason play was happening. A season-ending pair of games against Thornton Academy, another team with top returning talent, could end up being marquee matchups.


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