SOUTH PARIS — The lights around the Gouin Athletic Complex football field were just getting warmed up late Thursday afternoon when the Oxford Hills football team gathered and took a knee at the 25-yard line in front of head coach Mark Soehren.
The players passed around sheets of helmet stickers, to be distributed to every member of the team for last week's stunning 22-15 win at Bangor. Soehren told his offensive linemen to peel off an extra sticker for themselves for paving the way for a dominant rushing attack.
"You know how you rush for over 300 yards? By opening huge holes," Soehren said. "And the quarterback (Ryan Godin) gets another one, too."
The Vikings' offense didn't earn those kudos overnight. But now that the offense has become as worthy of praise as the defense that has been the team's identity for the last two years, Oxford Hills has a complete and dangerous team.
The victory over Bangor came one week after a confidence-boosting win over Lewiston. The two-game winning streak improved their record to 3-3. That marks the first time they have had as many as three wins in a season since 2007, when it finished 3-5.
"The team has more confidence than we've ever had," senior linebacker Jordan Croteau said. "(Beating Lewiston) was big because we only beat Mt. Ararat every year. Finally getting another win from another team made us realize we can actually play. Then that Bangor win was huge for us. That was the biggest win this program has had for quite a few years."
If the Vikings can keep the streak going through the end of the season, their first playoff birth since 2005 is a realistic possibility. Their last three games include once-beaten teams Brunswick and Cony. But what seemed impossible just a few weeks ago is no longer altogether out of the question.
"If we give 100 percent on every single play, I don't think there's a team in the league that we can't compete with. I honestly believe that," senior two-way lineman Bill Leahy said. "We're starting to believe that, too, from that big win against Bangor."
Long road back
It's been a long road back to respectability for the Vikings. And it came not long after the program reached its lowest point.
The low point came last February when head coach Paul Withee had to resign after he posted a nude picture of himself on his Facebook page that was intended to be seen by a personal friend but instead was inadvertently posted publicly.
Withee, who had won three state championships at Foxcroft Academy before his lone season at Oxford Hills, had been brought in to turn around a program that had gone 5-35 the previous five seasons.
A 1-8 2011 season showed signs of progress, but the Facebook incident made national headlines. The team's leaders, sensing the need for stability in Withee's replacement, urged administrators to hire Soehren, a former head coach at Poland who had served as receivers coach on Withee's staff.
"The kids trust him and we believe in him," said Leahy, one of the team captains. "It was tough to lose Withee, but coach Soehren is a great guy and we all believe in him and all love him."
Soehren said the team "had really moved on" by the time he was hired as head coach in May. It helped that there was continuity between him and the players and the the rest of the coaching staff, which includes two former Oxford Hills head coaches, Nate Danforth and Bob Austin, and assistants who worked on their coaching staffs.
Soehren and his staff set out to change the negative atmosphere brought on by years of losing and the Withee scandal by "letting the players understand how good they actually are, and let's not worry about what the wins and losses have been in the past," Soehren said.
The best place to start helping the players believe in themselves was the defense, which had been a consistent bright spot during the previous season. Since Soehren would be implementing a new offense that would take time to develop, the coaches knew maintaining a defensive identity would serve as an important springboard into 2012.
"We knew coming into the year our defense was going to be good, obviously," senior defensive end/fullback Dexter Turner said. "It was important to have that confidence while the offense came along."
While the offense grew, the defense kept the Vikings in a season-opening loss to Skowhegan, then dominated Mt. Ararat for their first win. With Turner terrorizing quarterbacks and running backs, linebacker Jordan Croteau leading the Pine Tree Conference in tackles and brothers Ben and Nick Bowie making athletic interceptions in the secondary, the Vikings surrendered a total of 21 points to Lewiston and Bangor.
The offense, meanwhile, has also begun to pull its weight.
Soehren introduced the Vikings' new triple option, or "flexbone," offense at summer workouts. While the system is relatively simple in terms of the number of formations, plays and blocking schemes it entails, it requires precise execution, the kind of precision that only comes with practice.
"The kids here are very football savvy. They pick up things very quickly," Soehren said.
The offense's progress has been noticeable over the first six weeks of the season. Turner and Malik Geiger lead a deep stable of running backs that gives Soehren a whole host of options whether he wants to utilize power running inside or breakaway speed outside. Senior quarterback Ryan Godin makes the offense go with his athleticism, timing and ability to read defenses.
"He's a good athlete, a smart kid, and he has a sense of what's going on," Soehren said. "He really does run the offense now like he's been doing it for a long time."
Godin, who rushed for a game-high 133 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score with 36 seconds remaining, against Bangor, learned to read the defenses through practice reps and loads of class and film work. Soehren trusts his grasp of the offense to the point that he expects Godin to check into different plays at the line of scrimmage, often calling two plays at a time for his quarterback to choose the best one when the defense shows its intentions before the snap.
Even Godin is amazed with how much more smoothly the offense is running compared to the end of the summer.
"Recently, I watched the early (exhibition) games against Westbrook and Leavitt, and I look at it now and I'm like, 'Wow,'" Godin said. "I like the offense. It's coming along really well."
It's coming along so well that it isn't just fooling opposing defenses, it's fooling veteran officials, too. Against Bangor, the Vikings had two plays in a row incorrectly whistled dead, including a likely touchdown by Godin, because the QB's fakes were so good.
Of course, the fakes wouldn't mean anything without the offensive line of Leahy, Tim Hutchinson, Spencer Thompson, Josiah Cushman and Dustin Edwards doing the work up front that earns them those extra helmet stickers.
"We're focusing on the small things like our footwork," Leahy said. "Even on the back side of the play, if the ball's not going to your side, you've still got a big block. You've got to cut that guy in front of you off because he could make the touchdown-saving tackle chasing the play down from behind. Every block counts."
The fact that every game still counts this late in the season for Oxford Hills is something the Vikings and their fans can appreciate as much as, if not more than, anyone in the PTC.
"Losing teams focus on losing. The teams that are where we're at right now tend to focus on and worry about winning. Teams (at the top of the PTC standings) like Lawrence, Messalonskee and Brunswick, they just focus on playing. And that's what we've tried to focus on with these kids," Soehren said.