PARIS — The seniors of the Oxford Hills/Buckfield have experienced a few different results the past two seasons.
In 2014, they saw Davis Turner lead the Vikings to its first postseason appearance in nine years.
Then last season the Vikings face-planted to a 1-7 record and no postseason berth.
“Last year was kind of a backtrack,” senior Brayden Bean.
That didn’t sit well with the players who are returning this year, so they decided to try to fix it.
“I think they learned, after a 1-7 year, you can respond in two different ways: you can either sort of become pouty and mope about it and be negative, or you can come out together and fight and try to compete a little bit better than we did the last year,” head coach Mark Soehren said.
“This group, they have responded in a way that we just don’t want to go through that again. It brought them together.”
Soon after the 2015 season ended, the seniors started preparing for something better in 2016.
“After last year, we all just sat down and said, ‘Listen, we need to become a closer team, how are we going to do it?’” senior Ryland VanDecker said. “And a lot of it was holding people accountable for showing up to team events.”
The offseason’s team activities included the annual senior hike, this time to the Bigelow Range, which led to subsequent hikes. It also included the weight room sessions, which VanDecker estimated had twice the turnout of the previous offseason.
“When you’re working out and on your last straw, like tiredness and everything, and you see your whole team around you cheering you on and stuff, that just brings you closer as a team,” VanDecker said, “and it just makes everyone really want to be closer together.”
Here’s the thing, Soehren says: it wasn’t that the 2015 Vikings were necessarily lacking unity.
“I love the kids that we had last year, great kids,” Soehren said. “I just think that this group’s just a little bit tighter, that’s all. Each class it seems has their own personality, clearly led by the seniors.”
Connor Bickford said he and the other seniors need to continue leading and helping the team bounce back from any in-season adversity it faces. There will likely be losses and there will definitely be mistakes.
“Instead of yelling at someone for messing up,” Bickford said, “give them encouragement and tell them what they can do better next play.”
The Vikings feature nearly 20 seniors this season and many upperclassmen with quality varsity experience.
There’s also size. Lots of size. Gunnar Docos has graduated and is now a freshman offensive lineman at the University of Maine, but plenty of size remains.
“We’re pretty big. You look around, it’s pretty decent size. Even our skill guys,” Soerhen said. “And you can’t just be big and win. You have to be big and then be good and win. But size isn’t going to be our issue.”
There’s ample of size on both sides of the ball.
Adarian Ray and John Blake were preseason beasts at defensive tackle, so much so that Soehren said occasionally one had to be taken out so that the offense could have space to work on its plays.
The entire defense is deep and experienced, and will likely remain the team’s strength. But the offense expects to be better this season.
Connor Truman returns as the starting quarterback, and he’s prepared to throw it around more to targets such as Bickford and receivers John Bowen and Brayden Bean.
“He’s gotten a lot better. He’s hitting receivers more often,” Bean said of Truman.
“And leadership-wise, he’s really stepping up,” Bowen added.
But, behind the big offensive lineman, the offense will still lean primarily on the run game. Dawson Stevens and VanDyken will be among the main ball carriers to replace the nearly 1,000-yard output by the graduated Jake Spinhirn.
“He was very good. He was quick on his feet, he could run, he found holes. But I think Ryland and Dawson can get the job done,” Truman said. “Our line this year, they’re going to open up holes.”
The Vikings want to flip last year’s last place finish in Class A North into another playoff berth. They’re big enough, but there is another size that matters.
“We talk to them about little things,” Soehren said. “It’s that two seconds left before the whistle blows, are you going to be stand around watching or are you going to be finishing a block?”