Kelsey Ouellette, top right, helps former Winthrop head coach Joe Burnham, top left, and the Ramblers close a timeout late in the Class C South championship game at the Augusta Civic Center earlier this year. Ouellette and Jess Merrill have been hired as co-coaches for the Winthrop girls basketball, replacing Burnham, who stepped down earlier this year. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Jess Merrill and Kelsey Ouellette have collaborated on Winthrop High School’s basketball court before, but there was only one net.

In March of 2019, Merrill and Ouellette organized indoor preseason practices together as, respectively, varsity girls and boys tennis coaches at Winthrop. The next time they step on the court together, it will be as co-coaches of the Ramblers’ varsity girls basketball team.

The duo replaces Joe Burnham, who resigned in late March, not long after leading the Ramblers to the Class C state championship game, to spend more time with his young family.

Ouellette has served as Winthrop’s junior varsity coach since 2017 and coached at Winthrop’s middle school for a year before that. She has also coached boys tennis since 2017, although Winthrop did not have a team in 2018.

This fall, Merrill will be entering her eighth season as Winthrop’s varsity field hockey coach and has coached girls tennis over the same span. The Ramblers have won a Class C regional field hockey title each of the last three years and won the state title in 2018, while the tennis team has been one of the strongest in the Mountain Valley Conference under her watch.

“We are very excited to have them take over as they both bring knowledge and winning tradition to the program,” Winthrop athletic director Joel Stoneton said.

Merrill and Ouellette said they are eager to continue the comeback the Ramblers achieved under Burnham, going from not having a varsity program in 2015 to regional champions last year, while leaving their own imprint on the program.

“I love basketball. I love coaching at Winthrop,” said Merrill, whose basketball coaching background includes serving as JV and freshmen coach at Hall-Dale, as well as Gardiner and Winthrop middle schools. “We’re excited to build off of what Joe started. We have a great rapport with each other and I think a strength we both share is building a rapport with the girls.”

A 2010 Winthrop High School graduate, Ouellette said she plans to carry over some of the coaching philosophies from Burnham, whom she considers a mentor, while also mixing in her own philosophies and the perspective of having been a recent female athlete.

Winthrop field hockey coach Jessica Merrill, left, celebrates with captains Brooklyn Gaghan, Gia Francis and Kerrigan Anuszewski, after the Ramblers sank St. Dominic in the Class C South title game in 2019. Merrill and Kelsey Ouellette have been named co-coaches of Winthrop’s girls varsity basketball team. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald file photo Buy this Photo

She said she and Merrill “always seemed to be on the same page” during their joint indoor practice sessions leading up to the 2019 tennis season. Teaming up again seemed like a natural fit, given Merrill’s experience and Ouellette’s presence in the program.

The Ramblers graduated a talented senior nucleus that was critical to their rise from the JV ashes, but Ouellette has coached the upcoming year’s seniors since they were in eighth grade and believes the program can continue to grow.

“Last year was such a close-knit group of girls and getting to the state championship game was such a team effort,” Ouellette said. “They worked so hard together and we’re going to try to continue that tradition.”

“There’s a lot of talent coming back and a lot of talent coming up,” Merrill said. “We want to help them realize their potential.”

Both coaches acknowledged that task is made more difficult by the ripple effects from the coronavirus reaching across high school sports.

“It’s going to be a pretty young team, and it’s hard because we’ve only been able to do sports-specific exercises starting this week (due to Maine Principals’ Association rules),” Ouellette said.

“It’s going to give us a nice opportunity to lay some groundwork with fundamentals,” Merrill said. “There’s a lot of raw talent.”

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