ELLSWORTH — For 32 minutes of play Monday evening, the Deer Isle-Stonington girls’ basketball team looked fearless.
Up against an Ellsworth team that had a much larger talent pool from which to draw, it would have been easy for Hancock County’s smallest high school to get overwhelmed. After all, schools of different sizes are put into different classifications for a reason.
True, it was merely an exhibition in which the coaches from both sides didn’t necessarily make the same play calls, substitutions and other in-game decisions they might have in the regular season. Yet the effort Deer Isle-Stonington, enrollment 112, showed in a 40-37 loss to Ellsworth, enrollment 448, still spoke of a team that doesn’t consider itself to be punching above its weight.
“We went toe to toe with them all the way through to the end, which is what we wanted to do,” junior forward Katie Hutchinson said. “We’re not scared of anybody.”
There’s no reason to be for Deer Isle-Stonington, which is coming off a year in which it used a balanced offense and hard-nosed defense to post an undefeated regular season and earn a playoff win before falling in the Class D North semifinals. With all but one player back from that deep run, coach Randy Shepard’s team has the pieces in place to make another.
The 2017-18 campaign hardly could have been scripted better for Deer Isle-Stonington, which went 16-0 in the regular season with sweeps of Hancock County rivals Bucksport, George Stevens Academy and Sumner. The Mariners then held Ashland to just 20 points in the Northern Maine quarterfinals to win their first game at the Cross Insurance Center since 2012.
Lily Gray, the Mariners’ top scorer last season, is back at the point guard position. As a junior last year, she scored 15 points against Machias, 19 against Jonesport-Beals, 21 against Bucksport and 19 again in the team’s regional semifinal loss to Woodland.
Rylee Eaton, Deer Isle-Stonington’s No. 2 scorer last year, is also back, as is Kaylee Morey, who excelled as a passer and defender. Freshmen last season, both players are set to become even bigger contributors in 2018-19.
With another of last season’s underclassmen, Brienna Limeburner, returning for her junior year, Deer Isle-Stonington will have one of Class D North’s best on-ball defenses. Tenacity on the defensive end of the floor last year was the calling card for the Mariners, who held opponents to just 33.4 points per game.
“We focused on being tough and aggressive on defense, and that’s a big reason we won so many games,” Gray said. “There were some games where we didn’t shoot well but still won because we held the other team to 20 or 30 points.”
Hutchinson, the leading rebounder among the team’s returning players, is manning the paint. Yet the Mariners also will have a bit of a different look down low due the loss of the team’s only 2017-18 senior, Orly Vaughn.
Vaughn, a 6-foot forward, caused nightmares for opposing players last season on both offense and defense with her overpowering size. Even with two, sometimes three defenders in her face, she reached double figures in points and rebounds on a regular basis.
“Orly was an awesome player, and our size without her is even more different than we thought it would be,” Gray said. “There are some things we did last year that we can’t do this year because nobody was as tall as her, but one positive is us getting to play a faster-paced game. I know I’m excited to see how we play that way.”
Even without Vaughn, the Mariners have more than enough experience to remain a contender in Class D North this year. As the coach on the opposite side of the floor Monday night could attest, the visitors’ size — both that of their players and that of their school — is nothing more than a number.
“With the way they can shoot, rebound and get up and down the floor, they would give some [Class] B teams and certainly some C teams a lot of trouble,” Ellsworth’s Andy Pooler said. “I don’t think any coach that prepares for them is going to be taking them lightly.”