AUGUSTA — Four wins didn’t seem like much.

It was still an improvement.

After going winless during the 2009-2010 season, the Mt. Blue girls basketball could sense the small progress.

Then came last summer. The Cougars’ baby steps evolved into larger ones.

“Last year, teams would be blowing us out,” said sophomore forward Miranda Nicely. “Then over the summer,  we were sticking with them and started beating them. So coming into this year, we knew we could really do this and play with anybody.”

Mt. Blue turned those small steps into leaps and bounds. The Cougars didn’t just improve, but became a force in Eastern A, going 12-6 and finishing third overall. It is not only the first playoff for the Cougars since 2007, but the highest ranking since being the top seed and winning the state title in 2000.

“We expected it because we knew we could do it,” said junior guard Gabby Foy, a KVAC first team pick. “But it really sank in that we actually made it.”

The Cougars will play seventh-ranked Skowhegan in Friday afternoon’s Eastern A quarterfinal.  Mt. Blue split with the Indians during the regular season, but the Cougars have not won a quarterfinal game since winning the state title in 2000.

“It’s exciting but we’re kind of nervous,” said junior guard Amy Hilton. “At the beginning of the year, we all set goals, both personal and team goals. Making it to the playoffs was kind of something we all wanted.”

It is quite a distance from where the Cougars were when Tom Philbrick took the coaching job to start the 2009-2010 season. A team that made the tourney just about every year wasn’t winning any games.

“It’s been how hard we worked,” said Philbrick, whose team had only one returning senior, Corrine Dingley. “For two years in the summer, we played around 50 games including the camps and the tournaments.”

His players bought into his defense-first mentality. They liked the style that came with an uptempo, transition style game. With each practice and game, they honed their skills.

“When we’re at our best, we’re pushing the ball up the court and putting pressure on people and taking shots when we have them,” said Philbrick.

The team showed signs of progress last year. Mt. Blue won four games and was competitive in many outings. With much of that team back, the Cougars had higher expectations for this year.

“We only won four games last year, but we all knew we could get to the playoffs,” said Nicely, a KVAC second team all-star. “We’ve been playing together for so long. It really hasn’t been that long, but it feels that way because we played so much during the summer.”

The team has built confidence in itself and faith in each other. That has made a huge difference says the girls.

“I feel the team is a lot closer,” said Hilton, also a KVAC second teamer. “It’s the team chemistry and working together,  that’s been a big difference.”

Mt. Blue lost its first game to Skowhegan, 47-46 and started the year 1-3. The Cougars then ran off four in a row and seven wins in their next eight. They’ve beaten fellow playoff contenders Bangor, Hampden, Skowhegan, Mt. Ararat and Messalonskee, and won half of their games by 10 points or less.

“It’s a process,” said Philbrick. “Usually three years, if you work hard, can start to turn the corner and start getting that momentum.”

The Cougars are excited about their playoff appearance at the Augusta Civic Center. They played a preseason game there and have had some AAU games there, but it will still be a new experience for them all.

Philbrick is trying to make sure they keep it in perspective.

“This isn’t any more than a basketball game,” said Philbrick, whose team scrimmaged Camden Hills earlier this week. “Yes, it has a bigger label on it. It’s at the Civic Center. It’s this and it’s that. The bottom line is do you play your game, do you hit your shots and do you play defense?”

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