#Tourney17: Morton's and Eastman's roles have changed, but their impact remains for Oxford Hills

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Erin Eastman and Erin Morton play for the Oxford Hills Basketball team.

PARIS — Erin Morton and Erin Eastman have been this far before.

Both were members of the last Oxford Hills girls’ basketball team to reach a state championship game in 2014. That was the Class A title game, in which Oxford Hills lost to McAuley. On Saturday, the Vikings face Gorham in the Class AA championship at the Augusta Civic Center at 6 p.m.

The two were freshmen in 2014. They both played a bit, but their main responsibility was to help the rotation players prepare.

“Our role was to work as hard as we could in practice and then let the older kids perform in the game. But now, we have to do both,” Morton said.

“It was a lot less stressful freshman year, but I think I like this role better.”

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Morton’s and Eastman’s roles have evolved over the years, and they’ve become key contributors on two other playoff teams.

This year, their senior season, they’ve taken on new roles in order for others to step up. Morton is still starting, but she has switched from point guard to shooting guard. Eastman, a starter last year, is now the Vikings’ sharp-shooter off the bench.

“They both have changed their roles from last year to this year, and it’s been, obviously, for the success of the team,” 12th-year Oxford Hills coach Nate Pelletier said.

Winning backcourt

The impetus for Morton’s move was freshman Julia Colby, who established herself as one of the Vikings’ top players at the start of the season. Morton had no problem relinquishing the reins to the newcomer because she’s played with Colby and knew that she would help the team win.

“It was pretty easy,” Morton said.

“I’ve always been a competitor. I like to win, so this season’s been really good, we’ve won a lot games. Everything’s just kind of paying off, it’s coming together.”

Morton’s production hasn’t dipped much in the new role. She is the team’s third highest scorer at 9.6 points per game. Pelletier said that last year, she was around 11 ppg.

“We have four kids that average about 10 points a game,” Pelletier said, “which has allowed us to be successful. You know, teams don’t really know who they should guard.

“She’s not that far below her average last year. It’s not that much of a swing. She probably could average about 15 or 16, but she understands that that’s not going to be the recipe for success — we need more kids involved in the offense.”

Even more important, the Vikings’ success hasn’t dipped this season. In fact, it has improved: they’ve won 19 games and only lost one.

“The one thing (Morton) values more than any other kid I’ve coached is winning,” Pelletier said. “She’s such a competitor, and will do whatever it takes to win.”

Morton’s shooting spreads out the defense, and she and Colby playing together makes Oxford Hills even more difficult to defend.

“It’s always great as a coach to have to point guards on the floor,” Pelletier said. “Teams just don’t press us. And that alone has helped us.”

Anna Piirainen, another senior, usually is assigned to defend opponents’ top players. That allows Morton to either guard the top remaining perimeter player, or to be used as a help defender who can sag off her defensive assignment to help defend the post.

Instant offense

Piirainen’s defense is part of why Pelletier prefers to have Eastman come off the bench.

Eastman said that she had appendicitis early in the season, and by the time she recovered, the Vikings’ new lineup had been established: Piirainen, Jadah Adams and Maighread Laliberte, who had emerged as an offensive threat, in the frontcourt, and Morton and Colby at the guard positions.

“She easily could have said, ‘Hey, I started all last year, why am I not starting this year?’” Pelletier said. “I had a conversation with her at the beginning of the year, and she said, ‘Coach, you need to do what’s best for the team; I don’t care about starting.’”

Coming off the bench simplified Eastman’s role: she needs to spread out the defense by shooting the ball.

“She comes in and she is a deep threat from anywhere on the court,” Pelletier said. “It changes the dynamic of our team when she comes in, and it changes how teams have to guard us.”

Eastman admitted coming off the bench was an adjustment. But she’s come to embrace it, and thrived more and more as the season went on.

“It was a big change for me,” Eastman said. “It was different, but I’ve grown to like it, because I’m the person that comes off the bench to give a little oomf.”

“I think she really bought into that role of this deep threat,” Pelletier said, “and these last seven or eight games, she’s averaging two to three 3-pointers made a game — and they’re not close, they’re like 5 feet behind the 3, some of them.”

Pelletier said that his senior captains’ willingness to alter their roles has helped set an unselfish tone for the entire team.

Now the Vikings and their unselfish, balanced approach will face powerhouse Gorham, which is going for its second consecutive AA state championship.

“We’ll have to be shooting good, and we’ll have to be defending good, because it’s not an accident that they’ve won 41 games in a row,” Eastman said. “We definitely need to have a good game plan, and then we’ll just go from there, see how the game’s going.”

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