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Oxford Hills’ Julia Colby dribbles the ball after a steal on a full-court press during the Class AA state championship game in February. Brewster Burns photo

They’re not sorry that they won’t have to formulate game plans to try to contain Oxford Hills guard Julia Colby any more. But as fans and teachers of the game of basketball, the Class AA coaches who clashed on the court with Colby in 2019-20 are sorry to see her go.

Colby’s combination of talent, poise and court awareness made her the ultimate leader, and earned her the ultimate respect from those who coached against her.

“She’s a champion,” said Cheverus coach Billy Goodman, who coached the now-shuttered Catherine McAuley High School to three consecutive state titles from 2012-14.

“As a coach, you wish you had one like her on your team every year,” Deering coach Mike Murphy said. “(But) it’s very rare.”

A two-time state champion, two-time Class AA North tournament MVP, two-time Sun Journal Girls Basketball Player of the Year, 2020 Class AA North player of the year and Miss Maine Basketball, Colby made herself and her teammates better with a tireless work ethic and court savvy that can’t be coached.

Colby’s impact on the Vikings and on girls basketball throughout the state earns her Sun Journal’s 2019-20 Girls Athlete of the Year.

Colby, who will next play NCAA Division II basketball for New York Institute of Technology, gave opponents nightmares with her ability to score from anywhere on the floor. But she earned just as many laurels for her ability to dominate a game without scoring and her knack for making the right play when it was needed most.

“Oxford Hills had a lot of very good players, but when the team needed it, Julia was the one who stepped up in the big moment,” Goodman said.

Edward Little coach Chris Cifelli was one of the few opponents to enjoy big-game success against Colby and the Vikings, who won three regional titles in her four years.

The Red Eddies defeated Oxford Hills in the 2018 regional final en route to their first state title. It looked like they might get another notch in their belt when EL led the Vikings late in the opening game of the following season, only to have Colby track down a loose ball in the closing seconds and take it to the other end for a buzzer-beating layup for a 37-35 win.

“She always had this presence of mind on the court,” Cifelli said. “She always did those little things that had her always in the right place at the right time.”

“Oxford Hills was so difficult to plan for because they had so many weapons that could beat you,” Cifelli said. “But Julia, one of the things that I loved about her was how steady she played. You looked at her and you never knew if they were up 20 or down 20, winning by one or losing by one. She just had this calming influence.”

“We had a lot of great battles with (Oxford Hills) her first two years and the last two years Portland was probably their biggest nemesis,” said Cifelli, noting how the Bulldogs gave the Vikings a scare in this year’s regional final, which Oxford Hills came back to win, 45-35, after Colby sparked the decisive 11-0 second-half run. “They were very athletic and gave Oxford Hills a lot of trouble. But it really came down to Oxford Hills had Julia and her poise and her ability to think quickly and figure out what was going to make her team successful.”

Murphy and his Rams had many battles with Colby, going back to an overtime loss to Oxford Hills in the 2017 Class AA North championship game, Colby’s freshman year. But it was the most recent game, a regional quarterfinal in February that Colby sat out to rest a sprained ankle, where her importance to the Vikings was evident.

“We didn’t win a game this year and we were down by two at halftime in the quarterfinals,” said Murphy, whose team went on to lose, 55-30, to the eventual state champions.

“She was the glue that kept those guys together,” Murphy said.

A 5-foot-5 guard, Colby displayed uncommon maturity even as a freshman, Murphy said.

“We had one of the better players in the SMAA in Abi Ramirez, who was a really quick, heady and tough kid, and Julia, as a freshman, held her own. Then we went to overtime and Julia just took over,” said Murphy, who noted that another of his former Deering standouts, Delaney Haines, who will be teammates with Colby at New York Tech.

The work Colby put into improving to become a more complete player was painfully apparent for the opposing coaches every season.

“Every year, something changed in her game,” Cifelli said. “We’d try a bunch of different things against her and she’d have something else for us. One year, we’d be saying, ‘You can’t let her get to the rim,’ and she’d go out and float threes in your face all night.”

Colby averaged 17.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. But beyond the 3.6 steals she averaged, her impact at the defensive end was virtually immeasurable.

Cifelli said Colby’s court savvy extended to the defensive end, where she could quickly diagnose an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and exploit them to her advantage.

“She was more of a scorer last year. This year, I think it was her defense (that was most improved),” Goodman said. “She was always a tough defender, but she did a lot of the little things to help the team.”

Goodman compared Colby to Allie Clement, the 2014 Miss Maine Basketball winner and the centerpiece of his title teams at McAuley.

“They had the same mental makeup,” he said. “The most impressive thing is the way she handled herself. Whether it was good times or bad times, she had the same demeanor.”

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