Thornton Academy girls’ basketball Coach Eric Marston watches his team perform a drill during a practice last week. The team is expected to be one of the contenders in Class AA South after years of struggles. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SACO — Word among Class AA South girls’ basketball coaches this preseason was that Thornton Academy would be a contender. After all, the Trojans had gone 6-0 in last winter’s shortened pandemic season and return all their players.

When told of his peers’ prediction late last week, Thornton Coach Eric Marston said, “They obviously didn’t see us play last weekend.”

Yes, the Trojans didn’t fare very well against Skowhegan and Oxford Hills in preseason games. “I think we lost them by a combined 70 points,” said Marston.

But, he later admitted, “I think we’re intriguing. We’ve got some very talented players. But we’ve got a long way to go to become a good team.”

The Trojans are, indeed, intriguing. They have only one senior starter, point guard Mikenzie Melendez, but a lot of young talent, led by junior Jessica Dow and sophomore Addisen Sulikowski. While Marston is known as a defensive-minded coach, this team has the potential to be high scoring.

“We’re going to have some growing pains,” said Marston. “We’re not going to hop out there and dominate teams. But we have the potential to be pretty good.”

The Trojans went 2-17 in the 2019-20 season and have only 11 wins over the last three full seasons. Thornton Academy advanced to the Class A state championship game in 2015, losing to Lawrence, 50-43. The next year, a fifth class (AA) was added by the Maine Principals’ Association and the Trojans haven’t won a playoff game since.

Last season, Thornton didn’t lose any of its six games, with four others canceled because of COVID-19 issues among its opponents. That short season certainly gave the players a glimpse of how good they could be.

“It just gave us a lot of confidence in ourselves,” said junior forward Hannah Cook, who averaged 10 points a game last year. “That we can beat some of the best teams if we put our mind to it and work hard in practice.”

Junior forward Hannah Cook averaged 10 points last winter as Thornton Academy went 6-0 in a shortened season.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dow said winning those games led to a better attitude.

“It was definitely a huge motivation for us,” she said. “Going into the COVID season, we thought it would be a struggle with masks and everything. It was such a good thing for us (to play). We got used to the mask and all of the things going forward with COVID. … And it jump-starts practices coming off a win. Everyone was excited to get out there and learn new things.”

Melendez, a three-year starter, said there is no comparison between this team and the one that won only two games.

“We really struggled then,” she said. “I think the difference is the chemistry we have with all the people we have now. We didn’t lose anyone from last year and we all play AAU ball together (at XL Sports in Saco).

“I really think the is the best shot I’ve ever had at winning at TA. And that’s because of the chemistry. We all love each other on and off the court.  I think this season is going to be a good one.”

Thornton Academy’s Addisen Sulikowski looks to pass during a practice drill. Sulikowski averaged 16 points as a freshman last season. “Last year we had chemistry and clicked like a family,” she says. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sulikowski, who averaged 16 points as a freshman, said team chemistry is important to this group.

“Everyone here is open and like family,” she said. “Last year we had chemistry and clicked like a family. … We’re a very positive team.”

So what happened in the preseason games against Skowhegan and Oxford Hills?

“We learned we have to all come together as a team, that we can’t play as individuals,” said Melendez. “We all played individually and thought it was fine to do it. It wasn’t.”

Dow, who averaged 17 points last year, and Sulikowski added that communication was an issue.

“I believe for us to be a team includes doing all the little things, including rebounding, talking, communicating on defense,” said Dow. “That’s a big thing.”

Marston said it’s important to remember that those teams, Skowhegan and Oxford Hills, are among the best in the state. It’s equally important, he said, to remember how inexperienced the Trojans really are. This team has only played six games together. And it has a lot of learning to do, especially on the defensive end.

“I think this is probably, from 1-5, the best shooting team from 3-point (range) that we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “We have some outstanding individual players and … if we can harness those skills within the team concept, we can be pretty good.

“I think it’s going to be a work in progress on the defensive end, particularly guarding off the ball. These girls are all very long and athletic and I think they could be very disruptive.”

Marston pointed out that Gorham and Massabesic are probably the two top teams in the region. And his Trojans?

“I think if we play together,” he said, “we should be able to hold our own.”

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