Nate Danforth got lucky in his first year as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.

That year, 1999, the Vikings made it to a Class A state championship football game for the first time.

Former Oxford Hills football head coach Nate Danforth watches his team play during a 2010 game against Edward Little where they suffered a tough loss in six overtimes. Danforth is now an assistant coach for the 2021 Oxford Hills team. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

They lost that game, 24-10 to South Portland. They haven’t made it back until this year, and there has been a lot of losing in the two-plus decades in between.

Danforth still remains as an assistant and one of the few remaining connections between that Vikings team and this year’s, and he said it’s been “a heck of a ride” — for him and the program — since that 1999 title game.

“Six head coaches — including me. Conference changes, some real tough losses, along with some amazing wins,” Danforth, a 1993 Oxford Hills graduate, said this week. “I’m really excited right now. The program is truly as strong as it’s ever been, and the Oxford Hills community never once stopped supporting us through the years.”

Danforth, the Vikings’ defensive coordinator, said he’s been motivated for the past 22 years to get Oxford Hills back to the state final. He and the Vikings have finally done it this season — and with his son, Trevor Danforth, and nephew, Brodi Rice, part of the senior class that have powered Oxford Hills’ march to Saturday’s Class A championship game against Thornton Academy (11 a.m. at Fitzpatrick Stadium).

It’s an opportunity and a moment that Nate Danforth said is pretty special.

Many of the seasons since 1999 have been anything but special.

There were winless campaigns in 2006 and 2008 — the latter was the first of Danforth’s three seasons as the head coach. The Vikings won one game each in Danforth’s final two seasons, and just one win again during Paul Withee’s one-season tenure that followed.

That’s when current head coach Mark Soehren — who was co-defensive coordinator with Danforth under Withee — took over.

“(Oxford Hills Principal) Ted Moccia and (then-athletic director) Jeff Benson took a bit of a risk hiring me. I was nobody coming into a bit of a difficult situation,” Soehren said. “They stuck their necks out for me more than once. I like to think they saw we had a plan and wanted to do things in the best interest of the kids and the program.”

Soehren had a 4-23 record in three seasons coaching Poland from 2008-10 on his resume before he took over the Oxford Hills program.

Oxford Hills head coach Mark Soehren on the sideline during a game against Windham in 2017. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo

When he first became head coach, Soehren told the Sun Journal that “building trust with the kids and the parents is of paramount importance.”

It’s become a cliché idea in sports, but there was trust in the process that Soehren put into place back in 2012.

“We focused on the youth program and retaining numbers in the high school program to start my first year,” Soehren said this week. “We implemented a strong weight-lifting program with the help of Jesse Wall. He has been integral to what we have been able to accomplish.”

Vikings assistant coach Joe Oufiero, who has been with the program for 20 years, said that the development of the Oxford Hills youth program has been a major factor in getting the high school program to this current state-championship level.

Danforth said the Oxford Hills’ fortunes shifted “when the lifting culture returned.”

“Kids were becoming confident in their abilities,” Danforth said. “With that confidence came the physicality Oxford Hills football was known for. We had some really talented classes coming through that were having lots of success at the lower levels.”

There wasn’t immediate success for the Soehren-led Vikings, however. The team didn’t make the playoffs until his third year, and didn’t win a playoff game until Year 5.

Despite the lack of overwhelming success, Oufiero said he, Soehren and Danforth always felt they were moving in the right direction.

The program started to prove its worth in 2018, when the Vikings clinched the No. 2 seed in Class A North and advanced to the regional final, which they lost to No. 1 Portland in overtime, 21-14.

“That was a learning experience for me and our staff,” Soehren said. “We have applied those lessons and feel like our program has continued to grow.”

Soehren added that the 2018 season’s seniors played a big role in getting the Vikings to what was at the time the pinnacle of his tenure.

Oxford Hills head coach Mark Soehren talks to his team during a timeout during a Class A semifinal against Bonny Eagle at the Gouin Athletic Complex in Paris on Saturday. Brewster Burns photo

The same can be said for this year’s senior class.

“Watching these guys grow up was a blast. They had quite a buzz around them season after season while they were growing up,” Nate Danforth said. “The senior class is really loaded with big, strong, talented kids, and the only thing they love more than winning football games is each other. These guys are easily the closest group of young men I’ve ever coached.”

Trevor Danforth said he has been around the program “basically since Day 1” of his life, and he attended a lot of Vikings practices when he was younger. He always wanted to be a part of the team, and in his first season playing in the program, 2018, the Vikings got within a game of the state final.

Bonny Eagle running back Zac Oja tries to outrun Oxford Hills’ Trevor Danforth during their game at the Gouin Athletic Complex in Paris on Saturday. Brewster Burns photo

That was exciting, but it wasn’t a standard Danforth’s class was OK with.

“Our class of football players dominated the other teams during middle school and freshman (football) years. Our goal has always been to win the gold ball,” Trevor Danforth said.

Finally getting to the state final doesn’t surprise him, but he still admits that it’s a dream come true.

“We have worked hard and know we are good enough to be there,” he added. “It has brought excitement to our community, we have a lot of people supporting us.”

And, of course, the seniors, as well as a deep class of juniors, have each other.

“It makes me so happy,” Trevor Danforth said. “Isaiah Oufiero, Eli Soehren and I have grown up together on the football field with our dads coaching. Ending this season with them at the state game is bittersweet.”

Oxford Hills’ Isaiah Oufiero fights for extra yards as he and Sanford’s Ryan Robichaud grab each other by the facemask during the Vikings win earlier this season at Gouin Athletic Complex in Paris. Brewster Burns photo

Joe Oufiero said being part of his son’s football career all the way to this point has been “an amazing journey, and to do it with Isaiah’s best friends has been an honor.”

Mark Soehren, whose son Eli, the Vikings’ starting quarterback, is only a junior, said being part of this year’s team has been a great privilege.

Forever grateful to the administration that trusted him to get the program to this point, Soehren said he never felt like it was an impossible task, even when some years the team felt so far away.

“There was some adjustments that needed to be made, and it made the process a bit longer,” Soehren said, “but we are one game away from our ultimate goal.”

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