Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School wrestling coach Shawn Dexter runs practice at the high school on Monday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

PARIS — When he stepped away from being an assistant coach to Tony Stevens at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School three years ago, Shawn Dexter wasn’t sure wrestlers still had the drive to succeed in the sport as when he started coaching nearly a decade earlier.

One of the most pleasant revelations Dexter has had since replacing Stevens, who stepped down last season after 12 years at Oxford Hills, is that the competitive fires still burn as strong as ever.

“When I got done a few years ago, I kind of thought the kids weren’t as tough as they used to be. But now that I’m back here and see these kids, I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I think they’re just as tough as they used to be and just as dedicated. They’ve just got to get used to a different coach now. That’s all.”

Much has changed in Maine high school wrestling in the short time Dexter stepped away. Last year, the Maine Principals’ Association started sanctioning a girls state championship for the first time. This year, the MPA will hold duals state championships in Class A and Class B for the first time in addition to the traditional state championship meet.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the vitality of the Oxford Hills program, which continues to thrive despite many programs around the state either folding or joining other schools in co-ops due to declining numbers.

Dexter has 30 wrestlers on his roster after graduating only two seniors from a team that finished in the top five in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference and Class A North before placing ninth at states.

“It was in a really good place,” Dexter said of the program he inherited. “Obviously, we want to keep that standard again this year. We only lost two seniors, so I believe we’re going to be right there again for the regional title and hopefully in the top five in the state.”

Dexter, 45, was raised in the same Oxford Hills wrestling tradition Stevens was, wrestling for Mark Dolloff. He was a state champion at 171 pounds in 1993 and believes the state’s best wrestlers still separate themselves in the same way he did.

“It’s just self-motivation,” Dexter said. “You’ve got kids who don’t want to go home and run an extra three or four miles or stuff like that. That’s what it takes to be a state champion in Class A, or any class for that matter. They’ve got to do the extra things. It’s just a different level of dedication than just coming to practice and rolling around for a while.”

“There used to be an old saying that summer wrestlers create winter champions, and that’s a true statement,” Dexter said.

The wrestlers who put in the work during the offseason don’t have to worry about getting to know a new coach slowing them down. Dexter coached many of them when they were starting out in competitive wrestling and already has a level of familiarity with most of the nucleus.

“I did great things under his coaching, so I hope to do more,” said senior Jeffrey “JJ” Worster, who was the 220-pound runner-up at last year’s New England qualifier. “(Familiarity) definitely helps a lot.”

“It’s a pretty smooth transition,” Dexter said. “Tony and I had a really good partnership. It was kind of a good cop/bad cop thing. But now I’m the bad cop all the time. I’m a little harder on the physical part, so they’re going to be in really good shape. Not that Tony was easy, but it was a different style.”

A strong feeder system and excellent community support have been the Vikings’ strongest allies through the years and should help them continue to thrive through a change at the top of the coaching ranks.

“I think it definitely has to do with the boosters we have and we’re able to attract a lot of new kids,” senior Cole Dunham said. “The middle school program is pretty good, too, and it just keeps putting back into (the varsity program).”

Dunham (182-pound winner at New England qualifier and runner-up at states), Worster and his younger brother, sophomore Dillon Worster (fourth at 152 in Class A) lead a team with a good mix of veterans and newcomers with high expectations for this season.

The Vikings’ large senior class is prepared to show the way for the underclassmen, Jeffrey Worster said. The group will just need to stay focused to challenge traditional powers Marshwood, Massabesic, Noble and defending Class A champion Mt. Ararat/Brunswick in February.

“We only lost two people, and we’ve still got a lot of underclassmen coming up that are pretty good wrestlers,” he said.

“The kids are already coming along and they’re all experienced. I think there are two kids that haven’t wrestled here before,” said Dexter, who assisted at Oxford Hills for eight years. “We have eight seniors and a new junior, Jream Tripp, who wrestled for me in middle school and decided to come back. He’s going to be our heavyweight and I would say he’s going to be a real good addition.”

Dexter was further encouraged by his team’s strong showing at its own preseason meet, the Viking Duals, last Saturday. Oxford Hills finished second to Camden Hills, confirming that it has another prize to shoot for this year, a state duals title.

“I think it’s great,” Dexter said. “That’s exciting. That’s something new. And the girls states is new since I’ve been gone. That’s exciting, too. That’s going to help the sport quite a bit.”

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