ELLSWORTH — Andy Pooler had a night to think about his team’s first home game of the preseason. At his team’s practice the following day, he had a message for his players.
In any other circumstance, a 59-20 win might have been ideal for the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team. Instead, the team’s head coach felt his squad was far from where it needed to be after its home win over the Sumner Tigers.
“The result was fine, but the effort wasn’t,” Pooler told his team as players congregated in Katsiaficas Gymnasium for the Eagles’ next-day practice. “We can’t hang our hats on this.”
The ensuing practice, two of the team’s players said later, was one of the toughest they’ve ever experienced. Yet the freshman- and sophomore-laden Eagles knew they needed to get tougher, and Pooler’s practice, which had the team running drills the full length of the court and going through set after set on offense and defense, was a step toward getting there.
This year’s Eagles are even younger than last year’s team, on which all but five players freshman or sophomores, but for the most part, the team is in a similar spot. Although Ellsworth still has a lot of talent and experience at the top of its roster, it will also have to rely on its underclassmen to improve as the season unfolds.
“We’re carrying a lot of younger players that are new to the program,” Pooler said. “In the games and scrimmages we’ve had so far, we’ve rotated in a lot of players. There are a lot of freshmen who are going to get big minutes for us and have a chance to make an impact.”
One of those young players has already made her mark for Ellsworth. Sophomore Trinity Montigny helped the Eagles turn their 2017-18 campaign around down the stretch and earned a spot in the starting lineup over the second half of the season as the team’s top ball handler.
Montigny led the Eagles in scoring in their Nov. 28 preseason game against Medomak Valley and was in top form once again against Sumner. The sophomore wreaked havoc on the Tigers’ defense throughout the first half to give Ellsworth a lead it would hold the rest of the way.
“She’s a year older and a year stronger, and she’s been playing a lot more year-round now,” Pooler said. “Getting that extra year going from a freshman to a sophomore has helped her body get even more prepared for a grueling schedule. She’s definitely taken that extra step.”
Pooler will still draw heavily on the experience of his two seniors, Katelynn Bagley, an inside presence with rebounding skills, and Hannah Sargent, a consistent 3-point shooter.
Bagley and Sargent know their head coach has set high expectations for them this season, but the two hardly seem fazed at all. They were among the Eagles’ top players last season alongside Mason, Hammer and Montigny, and Pooler has consistently pointed out their leadership skills to teammates in games and practices.
“We’ve been through this before,” Bagley said. “I think Hannah and I, we know what it’s like for Coach to expect big things from us and for our teammates to look up to us. So I don’t think we feel a lot of pressure at all.”
Among the younger players who will be seeing time on the floor for Ellsworth this year are freshmen Sierra Andrews, Kylie Robidoux and Sara Shea. Shea in particular earned a lot of minutes against Sumner, and Pooler hopes her play resembles that of an aforementioned freshman standout from last season.
“She played well defensively and showed she can handle the ball well for us,” Pooler said. “Like Trinity did last year for us, she’s going to have to find a way to step up and be a contributor for us.”
Pooler knows a mixture of veteran talent and young players might not come together right away, but he dealt with similar circumstances last season. The Eagles went 1-5 over the 2016 portion of their schedule before winning eight of 11 between Jan. 2 and Feb. 6 to clinch a playoff spot.
The Eagles have a less-than-ideal December slate once again this year. The team plays on the road in five of its first six games, a stretch that includes a road contest against defending Class C North runner-up George Stevens Academy and a road trip to The County to face Presque Isle and Caribou.
Before that, though, the team will open its season in Orono at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8. Ellsworth beat Orono on the road last season, and a similar result this year would give the Eagles a boost of confidence heading into the latter half of the month.
“They’re a team that’s very similar to us, and it’s going to be a good chance to see where we are and how we need to get better,” Sargent said. “If we can get off to a good start, it’s going to really get us going.”