State champion Central Aroostook eyes another memorable season despite pandemic restrictions

3 years ago

MARS HILL, Maine — Perhaps no teams are more impacted by the COVID-19 safety protocols this season than those that won state championships last season.

With no regional tournaments or state championship games, they won’t be able to defend their titles.

Head coach Dillon Kingsbury, whose underdog Central Aroostook High School girls basketball team won its first Class C state championship since 1982 last winter, is taking the situation in stride.

“Our mindset is no different than last year,” Kingsbury said. “We’re going to practice hard and compete to win basketball games and a championship even if it is an Aroostook County championship instead of a state championship.”

The fourth-year coach, whose team finished sixth in the Class C North Heal Points last season, said the Panthers still have a lot to prove. 

Kingsbury likes the fact CAHS has two games against Presque Isle and another against Caribou, Class B schools they don’t normally play, during the regular season.

“We will use those games as motivation,” he said.

“We’ve had some scrimmages with Presque Isle (in previous years) and they play a lot like we do. It will be exciting,” said senior point guard Maci Beals, the BDN’s Owen O. Osborne Class C North Tournament Most Valuable Player a year ago.

Beals headlines a list of returnees that includes five of the top seven players, three of them starters. The Panthers must replace graduated Breann Bradbury and her 18 points per game as well as her rebounding prowess along with shutdown defender Sydney Garrison. 

“To be honest, a few years back I was looking at the future and I thought this would be the season we would compete for a state championship. It happened a year early,” Kingsbury said.

“I am really looking forward to this season. We have a lot of talent,” he said.

The 5-foot-9 Beals averaged 14.7 points per game during the tournament as the Panthers knocked off top No. 1 Stearns of Millinocket, No. 2 Dexter and No. 3 Fort Fairfield, which entered the tourney with a combined record of 46-8.

She poured in a game-high 20 points in CA’s 67-61 win over Winthrop in the state final to cap a 19-4 campaign.

“She can attack the basket and she can also hit a 27-footer,” said Kingsbury, adding that Beals also averaged 10 assists and four rebounds.

Kingsbury said she is almost too unselfish and would rather have her teammates score.

Beals said she would like to have a memorable senior season before continuing her basketball career in college.

Senior shooting guard and 3-point specialist Libby Grass averaged 15.3 points per game in the tournament. She and Beals work extremely well together, according to Kingsbury. The 5-4 Grass, who had 12 points and eight rebounds in the state final, is also a top-notch defender.

Sophomore Kira Fitzherbert, a 5-10 forward, is the other returning starter. Kingsbury said she has significantly developed her inside game, especially playing with her back to the basket.

Junior Liberty Fulton, a 5-7 guard, is a streak shooter capable of nailing 3-pointers. She delivered 12 points in the state game. Kingsbury said 5-6 freshman guard Abi Haines, who received playing time as an eighth-grader, has a ton of potential. She can score, rebound and handle the ball and could be the heir apparent to Beals.

Rebounder Rylee Pierce (5-11) and 5-6 guard Izabel Pryor are joined by forward Ira Fletcher in a talented freshman class.

Sophomore forward Mallory Kingsbury and senior forward Sara Stitham supply the team with depth.

The Panthers feature a half-court, player-to-player defense and they are fond of shooting 3-pointers.

“Rather than take a 15-footer, you might as well take a few steps back for the extra point,” Kingsbury said.

CA’s eight 3-pointers against Winthrop set a Class C state-game record.

The Panthers are scheduled to open the season Jan. 20 against Fort Fairfield, but the surge of COVID-19 cases in Aroostook County is likely to push that back.