SOUTH PARIS — The last time the Oxford Hills girls’ basketball team was playing for a state championship, many of the current players were too young to remember.
“I was like in fourth grade,” sophomore Tianna Sugars said. “I don’t remember a lot from that team, but I remember a lot of happiness.”
The Vikings produced an exciting playoff run during that 2008 season and earned the program’s first regional title. Oxford Hills then lost a hard-fought game to Deering in the state final.
This season’s team has been living a similar experience. They’ve been relishing the success of an Eastern A title and the excitement it has generated within their community. It’s all a new experience for many of them. They take that newness and excitement into the Cumberland County Civic Center Saturday for a 4 p.m. game against the three-time defending state champs from McAuley.
“I don’t think I’ll really feel like I’m going to the state game until Saturday at 4 p.m. when I’m playing in the state game,” senior forward Brooke Murch said.
The Vikings have a disadvantage going into the game since the Lions are well accustomed to that scenario, especially compared to the Vikings. Coach Nate Pelletier is the only member of the team that was part of that state team back in 2008.
“The big thing from that game is that none of us had been there,” Pelletier said. “It’s a great time for the girls. For me as a coach, the job is to get them to calm down and realize it’s just a basketball game. Once the game gets started, it’s pretty simple. They’re out there playing. It’s getting them through the initial jitters. They haven’t been on that floor and haven’t been in that style of game.”
One encouraging thing for the Vikings is the same thing could have been said about the Eastern A final. Oxford Hills were the newcomers, playing against an EL team that had lost in the regional game two years before. The Vikings showed no kinds of nerves in the convincing win over EL and immediately took the Red Eddies out of the game.
“They were ready to go against EL,” Pelletier said. “They were a tough team to play. We were calm and very relaxed.”
That will be a sizable challenge against the Lions. McAuley has won 67 of its last 68 games and averaged 62 points per game and were second in the SMAA in defense, allowing just 35 points. The Lions have been a dominant force and are playing their 10th state game in the last 15 years, winning five of them.
The Vikings played the Lions in the preseason and had a good showing, even though Mikayla Morin wasn’t playing and Murch saw limited minutes. The Lions won but it was a close game.
“We know who’s the best on the team and who they look to,” Sugars said. “It feels good that we know that.”
Guard Allie Clement was the top scorer in the SMAA with 18.3 points and was the Gatorade Player of the Year last year. She’s a Miss Basketball finalist and leads a veteran McAuley team that also boasts some size inside with Victoria Lux (13.2 ppg , 9.2 rpg). Clement, Olivia Smith and Jackie Welch are all senior starters. Smith (Dartmouth) and Clement (Marist) have earned Division I scholarships. Smith didn’t play in the preseason game with the Vikings.
“We saw them in the preseason the last couple of years,” Pelletier said. “The girls do know what they’re getting themselves into. I tell them every day that you go out and play against 14 to 18 year old girls, you never know what’s going to happen. Our girls are very confident with their skills. We’re going to give them everything we’ve got. I think we have a good shot.”
The Vikings’ stellar defensive play and size inside might give Oxford Hills the ability to matchup with the Lions. Having played with them and competed with them, the Vikings have some confidence in their ability to challenge them Saturday. The Vikings have been reviewing film of McAuley in the previous state games as well the the Lions’ loss at Thornton earlier this season.
“It definitely helps,” Murch said. “We’re not so scared of them. We can put a face to the names. We know some of the strengths and weaknesses. It’s nice to know that they’re not this high-up team that’s impossible to beat.”
The Vikings even got acclimated to the new floor at the Cumberland County Civic Center with a practice there Tuesday. A significant Oxford Hills following is expected Saturday.
“It was different there,” Sugars said. “It was kind of intimidating, but we kind of got used to it.”
The Vikings have continuously improved this season and are hoping to give the Lions their best effort Saturday. Oxford Hills played stellar defense in the Eastern A tourney and displayed great poise under pressure, especially in the four-overtime win over Skowhegan in the quarterfinals.
McAuley certainly has some advantages on Oxford Hills, but the Vikings also know the Lions have all the expectations. The Vikings beat the two favorites in the Eastern A, Lawrence and Edward Little, during the regular season and toppled EL in the tourney. Now the Vikings get to test their mettle against the best from the West.
“We come into this game like we have nothing to lose,” Pelletier said. “We fell like we can compete with anybody and can beat anybody, but it’s a little easier to be realized when you feel like you’ve got nothing to lose.”