Following Oxford Hills’ 21-7 win over Thornton in the Class A state championship game in November, senior quarterback Eli Soehren said, “This school deserves it.”

Sun Journal sports editor Lee Horton

Certainly, a lot of people deserve it. Oxford Hills’ first football state championship was years in the making and probably seemed unlikely when Soehren’s dad, Mark, was hired as the Vikings’ head coach in 2012.

Becoming a state champion took a lot of hard work and a lot of patience, and Oxford Hills didn’t have the luxury of skipping many, if any, steps. There were no huge jumps in victories from season to season, and each new level of success eventually led to a loss that revealed how far they still had to go.

The Vikings finally reached the top in 2022, and in Saturday’s edition we revealed that their state championship is the Sun Journal’s No. 1 sports story of the year. Since its Class A title game victory on Nov. 19, I’ve had a few recurring thoughts about the Oxford Hills football program that I wanted to share before we completely move on to 2023.

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Six years and 15 days earlier, on the same field, Oxford Hills played in a regional semifinal for the first time in years.

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The chances of the Vikings winning were slim, but on Nov. 4, 2016, the visiting stands at Fitzpatrick were filled — there were nearly as many Oxford Hills fans as there were for the home team.

The Vikings lost to Portland 55-7. Mark Soehren told the team to forget the score.

“We can’t let this define what we’ve done,” he said after the game.

Six years and 15 days later, the Vikings were again at Fitzpatrick Stadium, this time raising the gold ball as the first football team in the school’s history to win a state championship.

“Just been fighting and scratching all these years,” said Oxford Hills defensive coordinator Nate Danforth, who played for the Vikings in the early 1990s and has been either an assistant or head coach at his alma mater for 24 years.

He added: “I keep promising them it’s going to pay off, and finally, it did. It makes me feel great to say we got it done because we put in the time and the work in.”

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I have often thought about the 2016 Oxford Hills football team as the program grew into a Class A contender. That was my first year in Maine, and a few things have always stood out from that team. First, that their fans packed the visiting stands at Fitzpatrick Stadium for a regional semifinal that I’m sure most of them figured wasn’t going to be close.

Second, when I talked to a few of their seniors during the preseason, they gave common preseason answers about improved team chemistry and team-building activities they did in the summer — in their case, they climbed a mountain. What was uncommon was the conviction the players had when they talked about the improved chemistry.

Team-building activities are intended to create camaraderie, the idea being that from togetherness comes strength. But the activity doesn’t strengthen togetherness, it merely allows the participants an opportunity to increase the togetherness of the group. Even teams with bad chemistry climb mountains in the offseason. The 2016 Vikings had no doubt that they used that time to grow together, and therefore stronger.

The 2015 team didn’t have bad chemistry, Mark Soehren said. But it did have a rough season. In 2014, the Vikings finished the regular season 4-4 and made the postseason for the first time since 2005. It was a big milestone for the program in its third season under Soehren. In 2015, Oxford Hills finished 1-7 and was back at the bottom of its region.

During the 2016 preseason, Soehren said the Vikings had two choices for how they responded: “… you can either sort of become pouty and mope about it and be negative, or you can come out together and fight and try to compete a little bit better than we did the last year.”

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The 2016 Vikings decided to stick together and resume their climb up the Class A mountain.

They went 5-5 that year, hosted a playoff game and won a playoff game before losing to Portland in the A North semifinal. Portland also ended Oxford Hills’ season in 2017.

The 2018 Vikings finished with a winning record (7-3) for the first time since 2005. They reached the A North final. This time, they went to overtime, but again lost to Portland 21-14 at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

That offseason, significant changes by the Maine Principals’ Association’s football committee left Class A with only eight teams. That made Oxford Hills’ path more daunting. Matchups against Thornton Academy, Bonny Eagle and Scarborough were no longer limited to state finals and the occasional regular season matchup; those three teams were now on the regular season schedule and unavoidable in postseason.

The 2019 season is the only time since 2015 that the Vikings didn’t have a better record than the previous season. However, they still finished with a winning record and reached the state semifinals, where they lost to Thornton.

Mark Soehren said during the summer of 2021 that Oxford Hills thought it was ready to compete in 2020, but that season was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Despite the graduation of many players expected to play important roles on the 2020 team, last year’s squad did compete, beating everyone, except Thornton, to whom Oxford Hills lost to twice, including in the state championship game.

This year, the Vikings overtook the Golden Trojans and beat them twice, including in the state championship game.

None of the setbacks defined the Vikings. Not even the state championship defines them — it is merely tangible evidence that the work they put in over the years, the refusal to settle and belief that the constant push to improve will pay off, eventually.

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Several athletes and coaches over many years contributed to Oxford Hills’ growth into a state championship team.

Following the 2016 season, I inadvertently began a yearly habit of thinking that the Vikings would experience a drop-off because they wouldn’t be able to replace graduating skill position players, only to be proven wrong.

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After 2016, I thought they’d struggle without Ryland VanDecker. Then Dawson Stevens had a great 2017 season, and the Vikings were just as good. But, surely, losing Stevens was going to be too much to overcome. Instead, they adjusted. With Colton Carson at quarterback in 2018, Oxford Hills advanced to within one game of the state title game.

That’s when I realized the trend: When star players graduated, the following year’s team had players who were just as good, or better.

Could the Vikings be better without Carson? Yep. After taking a small step backward for a year, they were better. The 2021 team made the state championship for only the second time in program history.

Isaiah Oufiero played big roles on that squad as a linebacker, a tight end and as a leader. Could that combination of physical and intangible prowess be replaced in 2022? It was. Somehow, Oxford Hills was, yet again, even better.

The Vikings developed so much depth that this season they kept winning despite injuries that forced two of the state’s top players, Eli Soehren and Lincoln Merrill, to miss games.

“I remember (New England Patriots coach Bill) Belichick said, ‘Players win games,’” Mark Soehren said after Oxford Hills’ state title game win, “and when I didn’t have quite as talented players, I didn’t quite understand what that meant. But when I was walking out at half, I’m like, ‘These are amazing players, they’re going to go win this game.’”

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After the final second ticked off the clock in the Class A final and the Vikings were officially state champions, Mark Soehren and Eli Soehren hugged each other on the field.

Oxford Hills head coach Mark Soehren hugs his son and quarterback Eli after the Class A state championship football game against Thornton Academy at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland on Nov. 19, 2022. Brewster Burns photo

That victory was all but sealed when Hunter Tardiff returned an interception for a score in the second half. Tardiff is the son of former Oxford Hills star and the 1994 Fitzpatrick Trophy winner Jeremy Tardiff.

Winning a state championship has been a decades-long project for several families: the Soehrens, the Tardiffs, the Carsons, the Oufieros, the Danforths and many more.

Supporting them along the way were large crowds of family, friends and fans in the bleachers. Even when winning seemed unlikely.

“There’s been some really rough years at Oxford Hills, and the fans have always come, always supported, always been great to the players and the coaches, no matter what,” Nate Danforth said. “They love football in the Hills. It’s just a great tradition, and for us to be able to be successful the last few years and show them a little thanks for all their support just makes it all worthwhile.”

Sun Journal sports editor Lee Horton can be contacted at [email protected]

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