Community-based youth basketball programs around the state often identify specific groups of players and envision them as tournament contenders once they reach the high school ranks.
At Woodland High School, that time may be now.
The Dragons, coming off their first winning season since capturing the 2009 Class D state championship, are off to a 3-0 start good for first place in Class D North heading into Thursday night’s game at Class C Calais.
“This group we’ve expected this year and next year to be our window if we have any shot at running off some good records and having a deep tournament run,” said Woodland head coach Ben Maloney.
“We’ve been with these guys since sixth and seventh grade running their travel team in anticipation of these next two years.”
Several factors weigh into Woodland’s optimism, including a solid cast of returning players that went 9-7 and reached the C North quarters last winter. That group has been boosted by the return of 6-4 center Justin Worden, a senior who missed the 2016-17 season with a torn meniscus after averaging a double-double in points and rebounds as a sophomore.
Worden is averaging 15 points and 15 rebounds a game so far this season.
“He really helps us, especially on the boards,” said Maloney, “and the other guys are more relaxed now because there’s not as much emphasis on them having to rebound. It makes it that much easier on them when he can control the middle.”
Other top returners are junior guard Drew Hayward, whom Maloney believes is the top player in Class D North, sophomore shooting guard Chris Plissey and senior forward Matt Miller.
“We’ve got a good group with strong guard play and a couple of bigger guys that can play down low,” said Maloney. “We’re a little deeper on the bench than we’ve been the last few years.”
Woodland also should benefit with the move by enrollment to Class D after spending the last two years in C.
The Dragons finished eighth in the final C North Heal points last year, then edged No, 9 Fort Kent 64-62 in the prelims before falling to eventual state champion George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill 72-31 in the quarters.
“They were an excellent team but it just showed how tough it was for us to compete in Class C,” said Maloney. “I thought that other than GSA we may have been able to compete with those ‘C’ teams last year but it was a lot tougher than we thought it would be when we first moved into ‘C’ a couple of years ago.
Both Class D North finalists last winter, state champion Machias and Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook, suffered significant graduation losses, leaving an opportunity for teams like Woodland and second-ranked Jonesport-Beals to better position themselves near the top of the D North standings.
“The confidence level is very high right now, especially after the way we’ve started,” said Maloney. “This group knew that their junior and senior years were really going to be their chance to prove what they’re made of and step their game up even more.
“And stepping down to Class D, they know they can compete with any team in Class D on a given night.”