ELLSWORTH — When his team holds its first practices in the coming days, Andy Pooler will have a harrowing reminder pinned to the locker room wall.
“Feb. 12, 2019, Class B North prelims: L, John Bapst, 27-34.” Those who aren’t part of the Ellsworth girls’ basketball program might not immediately recall what took place that day, but none of Ellsworth’s players or coaches can forget.
As Ellsworth entered the 2019 Northern Maine tournament, it did so on the heels of one of its best regular seasons in years. The Eagles boasted a record of 13-5 in a campaign that saw them post their first wins over perennial powerhouses Mount Desert Island and Presque Isle in more than a decade.
On that mid-February day, though, things would not go as planned; instead of earning a preliminary round victory and a trip to the Cross Insurance Center, Ellsworth couldn’t find its offensive rhythm and fell to a season-ending defeat.
“It’s bugged me since that day,” Pooler said. “I know it’s bugged [our players], too, and they’re going to have that reminder up there for them on the locker room wall.”
Nine months later, Ellsworth has finally returned to the court for a new season. With every major contributor from last year’s team back in the fold, the Eagles are itching to make amends for that bitter evening last winter.
“Everyone remembers that game, trust me,” senior Trinity Montigny said. “It’s been eating at us, and it’s going to continue to eat at us this entire season.”
Montigny, a first-team All-Big East Conference selection at guard last season, led the conference in points per game with 16.6. She also finished among the conference’s top-10 players in steals per game (2.9), assists per game (2.6) and 3-point percentage (38.4).
Yet Montigny is just one player returning for an Ellsworth team that had just one senior a year ago. The Eagles also welcome back Kylie Robidoux, their No. 2 scorer and top rebounder, Sierra Andrews, a strong defender with a capable 3-point shot, and Samantha Carter, Kayla Duhaime, Autumn Paul and Sara Shea, who all saw significant game time in 2018-19.
This year, those players return a year stronger and a year more experienced. After the way last season ended, Pooler believes they’ll be a bit hungrier as well.
“It’s cool to come into the gym and see familiar faces who are all excited about this season and ready to work hard,” Pooler said. “They know they left a little meat on the bone last year and that there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Ellsworth will also have a star-studded duo of assistant coaches this year in Shannon Curtis and Shane Lowell. Lowell, the Down East Family YMCA’s youth sports director, will coach the junior varsity team, and Curtis, who starred as a member of the Ellsworth girls’ team from 1991-95, is on board as a volunteer assistant.
Curtis and Lowell will also be coaching at the middle school level. That, Pooler said, will give the Ellsworth girls’ basketball program added structure and continuity from the varsity team all the way through the youth ranks.
“You’ve got a guy who’s built the Y and a player who had a lot of success here, and I’d be dumb to turn that down,” Pooler said. “They’re great to work with, and the girls know them well. I’m excited to see the payoff for us.”
As for the varsity team, Ellsworth has its sights set on playing at the Cross Center. The Eagles have come within one game of doing so the past three years but have lost in the prelims each time.
“We’ve been dreaming of the Cross Center,” Robidoux said. “We’ve come really close, and it’s killing me. I want to do it this year.”
The path there is set to be a challenging one as the Eagles will play a schedule consisting solely of Class B teams. That slate includes home-and-homes with MDI, Hermon, Maine Central Institute and Presque Isle as well as road contests against Old Town and John Bapst.
“It’s a hard schedule, and that’s what I wanted,” Pooler said. “If you look at the teams who win tournaments, they all play tough schedules. We need to be able to do that, too.”
The first test will come in a home preseason game against Belfast at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 23. The Eagles will then play on the road against Medomak Valley (4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 25), Narraguagus and George Stevens Academy (doubleheader at 2 p.m. next Friday, Nov. 29, at MDI) and Lawrence (6 p.m. Dec. 3).
Then, on Dec. 11, Ellsworth will open the regular season when it hosts Washington Academy at 7 p.m. By that point, the Eagles will have gone 302 days between official games — far too long for a group driven by the devastating experience from its last time on the court.
“Every time somebody asks me, I say, ‘This is our year,’” Montigny said. “If anything is going to happen, it’s going to be this year, and after last year, we know what our motivation is going to be every day.”