Winthrop players Gavin Perkins, left, Jevin Smith and Ian Steele run toward the student section with the Gold Ball after they won the Class C state championship at the Augusta Civic Center on Feb. 29, 2020. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Editor’s note: Obviously, the biggest sports story of 2020 in the Sun Journal’s coverage area was the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. For our year in review, we decided instead to count down the other top stories of the year.

Perhaps it was the result of having the weight of history lifted off of their shoulders. Maybe it was the poise and confidence of knowing that they had done it before. Or perhaps it was about carving a new identity of their own.

Whatever the cause, three teams — the Oxford Hills girls, Edward Little boys and Winthrop boys — followed up recent state championship seasons with encore performances in 2020. Oxford Hills and Winthrop retained titles from 2019, while Edward Little secured its second gold ball in three years after ending a long title drought in 2018.

Each team ended its season hoisting the trophy triumphantly before raucous supporters, but each arrived at their destination in its own way.

For the Vikings, the 2020 Class AA state title was affirmation of their dominance at the tail end of the decade. Led by Miss Maine Basketball Julia Colby, the senior nucleus embraced the target placed on their green-and-gold backs after winning the program’s first state championship in 2019 and won 21 of its 22 games, virtually all of them going away.

It wasn’t merely the convincing victories that made Oxford Hills one of the must-watch teams of the past year. It was the tenacity and flare with which the Vikings won those games. Whether it was the sympatico stylings of Colby and fellow Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist Cecilia Dieterich for the Vikings in the open floor or the relentless pressure at the defensive end that preceded the transition game from that backcourt duo, classmates Brooke Carson, Maggie Hartnett and Jade Smedberg and juniors Cassidy Dumont and Ella Kellogg, the Vikings were constantly in motion and always compelling.

“We had to play at that pace every single day. We couldn’t take any days off,” Oxford Hills coach Nate 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.”

Oxford Hills celebrates with the Gold Ball after beating South Portland 49-38 in the Class AA girls basketball state championship game on Feb. 29, 2020, at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Oxford Hills hit one speed bump during the regular season, a one-point loss to two-time Class A champion Greely, and entered the Class AA tournament as the top seed. It cruised through the first two rounds with 25- and 23-point wins over Deering and Windham, respectively, then, in the AA North final, met what many believed would be their kryptonite in a talented, athletic Portland team that liked to run even more than the Vikings did.

Neutralizing Portland’s quickness was enough of a concern for Pelletier to pull back his team’s vaunted press in the first half of the regional final. The Bulldogs seized the opportunity to dominate late in the second period and early in the third to take a four-point lead before the defending champions turned up the pressure and turned to Colby to spark a game-changing 11-0 run.

“We went back to what we know what to do, which is press,” Oxford Hills girls basketball coach Nate Pelletier said. “That press gave us some opportunities to get our offense going. … Pressing allowed us to get going, and it didn’t necessarily mean we were taking quicker shots but we were moving at a quicker pace, which is something we have preached all year, let’s play faster than anyone wants to play.”

Colby scored 12 of her team-high 14 points in the second half while Smedberg, Dumont, Hartnett and Carson also provided sparks and helped pick up the slack when Dieterich fouled out in the fourth quarter and propelled Oxford Hills to its third regional title in four years with a 45-35 win.

Class AA South champion South Portland presented no pacing dilemma for the Vikings in the state championship. This time, they were the aggressors on each side of the halftime intermission and maintained a fast tempo at both ends to gradually wear down the Red Riots in a 49-38 win. Colby finished with a game-high 22 points, Dieterich with 11 points, and the Vikings collectively shut down South Portland star Maggie Whitmore after a 10-point first quarter.

“It means a lot, especially because this is the last game I am playing with (the Vikings),” Colby said after the Vikings were awarded the gold ball. “This one feels 10 times better than last year’s win.”

The echoes of Oxford Hills’ championship celebration were still ringing through Cross Insurance Arena in Portland when Edward Little stepped on the floor for its second state championship game in three years a little over an hour later.

On the court, very few players remained from the Red Eddies’ 2018 championship team that ended the school’s 78-year title drought. Only senior guard Austin Brown remained from the starting lineup of that team, and the Eddies had undergone a major makeover at both ends with the graduation of two-way star Wol Maiwen in 2019.

Despite losing their catalyst, Coach Mike Adams, still recovering from late-August open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect, maintained the EL ethos of uncompromising defense and selfless offense. He still had a deep and talented senior nucleus that was well-versed in the EL way and, after mostly watching from the sidelines in 2018, had gained valuable tournament experience while reaching the 2019 regional final.

Defensively, EL adjusted from relying on Maiwen to intimidate in the lane and at the top of the press to counting on the versatility of its rotation and tenaciousness of Brown and fellow senior guard Storm Jipson, a sophomore reserve on the 2018 team, to frustrate opponents. Offensively, the Eddies’ lubricant was their team chemistry, and when they were at their most fluid they could share the ball as well as anyone. They could divide the scoring evenly among five or six contributors or, when things got bogged down, pound the ball inside to rugged sophomore center John Shea or ride the hot hand of Brown or seniors Max Creaser and Cam Yorke and junior reserve R.J. Nichols on the perimeter.

EL fell twice during the regular season, including a 66-49 loss to their future nemesis from the South, Thornton Academy, yet still earned the top seed in AA North.

Following a blowout win over Portland and an eight-point win over a scrappy Windham team in the first two rounds, the Red Eddies encountered third-seeded Deering in the regional final.

Led by an all-around outstanding performance by Brown, Edward Little pulled away in the fourth quarter to beat the Rams for the third time in the season, 64-51. Brown led all scorers with 20 points and, perhaps more importantly, held Deering star guard Askar Houssein, who had torched Bangor for 29 points in the Rams’ semifinal win over Bangor, to just four points.

“Askar is a great, great player,” Adams said, “(and) Austin Brown stepped up because that’s what we needed.”

The Red Eddies would need Brown again in the state final, and he stepped up in a big way again.

In an intensely fierce and physical final, Brown complemented Shea’s team-high 16 points inside with five 3-pointers, including what turned out to be the game-winner with 25 seconds left, to make the Red Eddies champs again with a 52-51 win over the Golden Trojans.

“I’d have to say this one’s a little bit more special (than 2018), just being it’s my senior year and stuff,” Brown said. “It’s a good last (game).”

After years of having come up agonizingly short in their last game, the Winthrop Ramblers started a habit of making their last games good and memorable with a Class C state championship in 2019.

Some thought the Ramblers would have to live off of the glory of 2019 for at least one year after graduating eight senior contributors, led by star center Cam Wood. But coach Todd MacArthur recognized early that the remaining nucleus of Ryan Baird, Jevin Smith, Cam Hachey and Gavin Perkins, plus newcomers such as Brad Bourne, Ian Steele, Noah Grube and Jake Carter, were just as driven to make 2020 an unforgettable year. The question was, with less varsity experience, how quickly the Ramblers could grow into a contender.

“I had a lot of confidence in this group going into the season,” MacArthur told the Kennebec Journal, “but I didn’t know what their ceiling was going to be. And they just proved that they were going to continue to grow all year long, and they developed into a team that obviously was a state championship-caliber team.”

Like 2019, the Ramblers rolled through the regular season with just one loss and entered the Class C South tournament as the top seed. Unlike 2019, they didn’t have the offensive explosiveness to make opponents submit. Instead, they played even more suffocating defense than their predecessors to defend their title.

Winthrop dispatched rival Monmouth Academy in the first round, 53-24. To prove their stinginess wasn’t a fluke, they secured their fifth consecutive trip to the regional final by locking down North Yarmouth Academy, 40-25, limiting Mr. Maine Basketball semifinalist Te’Andre King to one point in the process.

Tight defense and mental toughness helped the Ramblers handle adversity all season long and were the deciding factors again in their regional final against Waynflete. Despite losing leading scorer and rebounder Ryan Baird to a right ankle injury late in the first quarter, they held the much-bigger Flyers to a season-low for points. Tournament MVP Cam Hachey scored 19 points and Winthrop held Waynflete to just four points in the fourth quarter en route to a 39-30 win.

“When Ryan went down, it was certainly tough,” Hachey said. “But we just got the job done. I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

An equally tough-minded team greeted the Ramblers at the Augusta Civic Center for the state championship, C North champion Dexter. The game played out in the physical, defensive standoff many anticipated and both teams were clearly in their element.

The teams went back-and-forth for nearly three quarters before Steele, Hachey and their trademark defense sparked the Ramblers’ 9-0 run late in the third quarter to take a lead they never relinquished. Hachey finished with 16 points, Smith 13 points and Baird, still a bit hobbled by his high ankle sprain, added 11 points to send Winthrop to a 51-41 win and its first back-to-back state championships since 1992-93.

“No one thought, losing eight seniors, that we’d be back here,” Smith said. “And we proved something tonight.”

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