Sanford High boys’ basketball coach Jacob Mills says he saw his team’s early-season success coming.

But Mills understands if others didn’t. Sanford has been in the bottom half of AA South since the MPA went to a five-division format.

That appears likely to change this season. The Spartans are 5-1, the only loss a lopsided 66-34 setback to South Portland. The Red Riots, preseason favorites in AA South, are the only unbeaten team left among Class AA schools at 5-0.

Justin Kennedy, one of four senior starters, has led Sanford averaging 16 points per game, including a recent 34-point effort in a key win against Kennebunk, a solid Class A team.

“I saw his success coming and our success coming,” said Mills, in his third season as the Spartans’ coach. “The group of kids we have, led by our four seniors, they love to play basketball and that’s one thing I can’t teach. We had a great summer together and we have so much experience.”

Sanford is one of several southern Maine teams off to strong starts with the regular season about one-third completed. They have the potential to improve as point guard Connor Curcio, who has been on a minutes restriction while returning from an ACL injury, continues to work his way back into full-time mode.

“He’s started the last three games,” Mills said of Curcio. “He’s a great shooter and the more he gets comfortable the better off we’ll be.”

The Spartans will get a good idea if they are ready to take another step forward this week. South Portland is in town on Tuesday with a game against Thornton Academy (5-1) scheduled for Saturday.

COVID CONCERNS: For the first time this season, Sanford had a player test positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. Mills said he did not expect the impact to be widespread because most of his team is vaccinated or participating in pooled testing.

“I figured after the holidays things will get a little sticky,” Mills said.

Portland Coach Joe Russo said his team has had players out because of COVID protocols in five of its six games. The Bulldogs were down three players, including a key post player in a 47-41 loss Thursday to league-leader Edward Little. EL center John Shea scored 38 points.

“We’re fortunate to be 4-2,” Russo said. “We’ve had at least two or three guys out because of the close contact or they’ve had a symptom. Most of our kids are vaccinated but even being vaccinated if they have symptoms,” they have been missing the game.

Marshwood postponed a game over the break against Westbrook.

“We only had six guys,” said Marshwood Coach Bobby Pratt. “We did play Wells on Thursday and we only had eight and we will be a little short-handed this week.”

Developing depth will be important, especially this season

“Some of the teams that do well this year might be the teams that get a little lucky that stay healthy and that’s another reason to play a big bench,” said Lake Region Coach Ryan Martin. “It’s definitely a higher probability that you’ll need them this year more than any other year.”

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING, it’s not a surprise that Portland and Thornton Academy are off to fast starts. But both Class AA teams had question marks entering the season. The Bulldogs only won three games in 2019-20. Thornton, the AA South champion in 2020, had very little varsity experience.

Russo and Thornton Coach Bob Davies credited teamwork as keys to the early success.

“The kids are playing really hard and they’ve been playing together and having fun,” Russo said.

Wani Donato has been the floor leader and junior point guard Brady Toher has been “very consistent.” Spencer Cross, coming back from an early-season bout with mononucleosis, is another key.

Thornton’s only loss came against South Portland (57-53 in Saco).

“They care about winning and to win you’ve got to play as a team,” Davies said, adding he likes the way his players share the ball offensively, rotate on defense and their understanding of both their objectives and roles.

Junior point guard Will Davies, Bob’s son, is averaging over 17 points per game. Davies, now 6-foot-2, has grown nearly 8 inches since his freshman year. Braden Camire has shot well, senior Cody Ruff (6-5) and junior Aleesio Marcus (6-4) have given the team an inside presence, and Georgetown baseball commit Cody Bowker and Anthony Jones bring all-around athletic talent to the court.

“It’s a great group of athletes and to be honest they’re all doing what I thought they could do,” Davies said. “It’s a long season so hopefully we’ll continue doing it and keep getting better.”

MARSHWOOD IS 5-1 in Class A South because of its defense. The Hawks did lose 64-44 to league-leader Falmouth (5-1, with a loss to South Portland) but in its wins they have allowed 34.8 points per game.

Pratt said his team has made it “our mission” to play tough defense and emphasize limiting teams to one shot. The next step will be finding some complimentary scoring to help out Aidan Sullivan and junior Andrew Perry.

“We still have a lot to prove. We have Kennebunk (4-2) on Thursday. They’re very dynamic and trying to score with them will be a challenge,” Pratt said.

IN THE DEEP Class B South, Yarmouth is 4-0 and has begun to augment its offense. In the Clippers’ season-opening 55-54 overtime win at York, Peter Psyhogoes (32 points) and Matt Waeldner combined to score 51 points.

“Fortunately other kids are stepping up too so we’re not just a two-man team on offense,” said fourth-year coach Jonas Allen, citing guard Sutter Auger and post player Cole Snyder as two players now contributing “eight, nine points” on a regular basis.

With seven seniors, Yarmouth is seen in many circles as the team to beat in B South. York (3-2 with its other loss by three points to Marshwood), Leavitt (6-1), unbeaten Spruce Mountain (4-0), Cape Elizabeth (3-3) and Lake Region are among many quality teams.

Lake Region (5-1) might be the biggest surprise, and has four players scoring in double figures. Senior 6-5 forward Jake Stone, who did not play as a junior for “COVID reasons,” according to Martin, has been a key, taking over the leadership role, averaging nearly 14 points and playing active defense. Noah Duprey (14 points per game) draws attention as a 3-point shooter, opening slashing lanes for Jacob Chadbourne (15 ppg), and 6-3 freshman Jackson Libby (10 ppg) “thrives in the paint and wants to be in there.”

IN CLASS C, Old Orchard Beach lost its opener at Traip Academy in Kittery but has since rolled off four straight wins, including beating Waynflete for the first time since 2012 – in double overtime in Portland.

“That was significant for the kids,” said Coach Matt Regan. “Waynflete is always that pinnacle to beat or play as well as in C South, so to beat them makes them feel they can compete with anyone.”

Junior Landen Johnson is averaging 26 points a game. Johnson started midway through his freshman season because of his 3-point shooting ability. Now he’s added counter moves, driving to the basket more and, thus, getting more free-throw attempts.

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