The Oxford Hills bench cheers as the Vikings close in on winning the Class AA state championship in February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

The day after her basketball team suffered a heartbreaking loss to Edward Little in the 2018 Class AA South final, Oxford Hills sophomore Julia Colby asked her coach, Nate Pelletier, to open up the gym.

It wasn’t unusual for Colby, a budding superstar at the time, to work on her game in an otherwise empty gym. But over the next two years, more and more of her teammates would join her, whether during a sweltering summer night, or a freezing cold Sunday morning after a late Saturday night ride home from a road game.

The Vikings vowed there would never be another loss like the one to the eventual state champion Red Eddies in the 2018 tournament. Oxford Hills had a one-point lead and the ball with 45 seconds left before a backcourt violation started a chain of events that led to third-seeded Edward Little upsetting the top-seeded Vikings, 48-45.

“It became contagious. We had a group of seniors that were on a mission since 2018,” Pelletier said. “They said, ‘That’s not going to happen to us again.’ They just didn’t feel like they could lose.”

Oxford Hills lost only three games over the next two seasons and capped off both with Class AA state championships – the first in the program’s history.

Led by the dynamic senior backcourt of Colby, who won the Miss Maine Basketball award in March, and Cecelia Dieterich, a Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist, the Vikings followed up their inaugural championship season with an even more dominant 2019-20 season. For this, Oxford Hills is our choice as the 2019-20 Varsity Maine Girls Team of the Year.

Colby and Dieterich earned the acclaim, but their supporting cast, led by fellow seniors Brooke Carson, Jade Smedberg and Maggie Hartnett and juniors Cassidy Dumont and Ella Kellogg, had to thrive in expanded or altered roles to lead Oxford Hills to a repeat.

The team suffered an early setback when junior Viktoria Sugars went down with a season-ending knee injury. Yet Pelletier was determined to double down on the fast-paced, full-court pressure style that served the Vikings so well in their first title season, even if it had to be done with a seven-player rotation.

The regulars embraced and thrived in their new and expanded roles. Dieterich and Dumont, a junior guard, took on more of the scoring load from Colby. Dumont led the team in 3-point shooting, making over 40 percent of her shots from beyond the arc.

Cecelia Dieterich of Oxford Hills swings the net after the Vikings won the Class AA state title in February. Dieterich scored 11 points for the Vikings, including three 3-pointers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

Defensively, the Vikings had a stopper in Carson and a trio of guards in Colby, Dieterich and Dumont who could get out in transition quickly. Improved shooting from the guard trio and center Maggie Hartnett spaced the floor on offense. But they still needed someone to hold down the paint at both ends.

To do that, Pelletier turned to Smedberg, an athletic wing for the 2018-19 championship team. With Kellogg providing support off the bench, the Vikings transformed what could have been a fatal flaw into an advantage, as their front-court players simply outran their opponents to claim prime position underneath.

It was a formula opponents rarely tested. Greely, which went on to be the top seed in Class A South, handed Oxford Hills its only loss, 62-61, in early January.

The rotation was short, but Pelletier knew his second seven players were critical to their title defense because of how hard they practiced. The Vikings wore out opponents with their relentlessness, defeating them mentally as much as physically with the fast tempo.

“We had to play at that pace every single day. We couldn’t take any days off,” Pelletier said. “It sort of became routine. We started every practice with 20 minutes of just straight running. At the end of a game, the girls would start to see the benefits of it.”

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