CHINA — There are some new faces for Erskine Academy boys and girls basketball this year, but that doesn’t mean the two programs are in similar spots.
Fresh off a tough 1-18 season, the Erskine boys have a new coach as they look to climb out of the Class A North cellar. On the girls side, the head coach of last year’s team is back for a second season, but gone are many of the players who powered the Eagles to a fourth-place finish in the region.
“It’s really like we’re starting fresh,” said Erskine boys head coach Matt Barry. “There’s really not a lot of expectation, so there’s also not a ton of pressure. You can really see it in the kids at practice; they’re just playing hard and letting it happen.”
Although there are some key differences for the two Erskine basketball teams this season, it does seem to be a year of renewal for both programs. There’s work to be done, but the Eagles hope to show that they’re no pushovers as the 2022-23 campaign begins.
A year ago, the Erskine Academy girls went 10-9 to finish toward the top of Class A North, giving eventual state champ Skowhegan its closest game of the season in a 47-35 regional quarterfinal loss. It was the fourth straight winning season for the Eagles, who from 2008-18 had suffered 10 consecutive losing campaigns.
Seven seniors from that team, though, have moved on. Erskine must replace All-Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference second-teamer Mackenzie Roderick, as well as Julie Barber, Emily Clark, Sam Golden, Hayden Hoague, Maddie Lully and Sarah Praul.
“It was quite a group, and we lost quite a bit,” said head coach Jamie Soule. “We’re a much younger team this year, but we do have a few players back who didn’t get a lot of playing time last year because they were behind those seven seniors. They’ll get to step up this year.”
It starts with the returnees who did garner significant playing time a year ago: Grace Hutchins and Emma Stred. Those two give Erskine experience at guard and forward, respectively, with fellow senior Gabby Sasse helping anchor the paint after earning occasional minutes last season.
With any youthful team, a certain amount of patience is necessary to help the squad come into its own. That’s something Soule learned in his first season at the helm a year ago, and he expects his team to improve a lot by the time the tournament rolls around.
“It’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint,” Soule said. “You don’t have to be playing your best basketball in December, but in February, if you’re playing strong, you’re in good shape at that point. Hopefully, we can get ourselves into the tournament and be peaking at the right time.”
The Erskine boys team is now under the leadership of Barry, who spent years as an assistant coach for Cony under former head coach T.J. Maines. Leading his own program has been a longtime goal of Barry’s, and in the Eagles, he feels he’s found the perfect fit.
“It took 26 years for me to find my program, and I’m really glad it’s this group,” Barry said. “It’s a really good vibe with this group. We know we’re in a really tough league, and we’re going to have to build it from the ground up. We have a really good younger group, and our seniors are very vocal and motivated.”
Barry and his players certainly aren’t shying away from the fact that they have a rebuilding job in place. You don’t have to remind them that they won just a single game and finished at the bottom of Class A North, something Barry and top returner Gabe Pelletier don’t sugar-coat.
Yet Pelletier thinks Erskine has taken a step toward improvement with the arrival of his team’s new head coach. There’s a newfound confidence to the Eagles, he said, and with fellow 2021-22 contributors Kaleb Brown, Noah Crummett, Bo Johnson and Kaden Porter also returning, the senior captain believes things are trending in the right direction.
“I have a lot more faith in what I’m doing out here,” Pelletier said. “I guess that’s all I need to have more confidence in what I’m doing. … It’s going to be tough, but if we just bring what we’ve been bringing at practice, we got it.”