They remember the loss. The players and coaches on the Richmond girls basketball team don’t need any reminders of that.

They remember the 16-2 record they took into the Class C South quarterfinal. The spotlight of the Augusta Civic Center in which they played it. And the 33-32 loss to an upstart Searsport team that transpired on that stage, dashing what had been a season to remember in just a matter of minutes.

“It was heartbreaking,” coach Mike Ladner said. “After all the hard work we had put in and everything and being the No. 1 seed our first season in Class C, it was heartbreaking.”

Teams don’t often get a chance to atone for such setbacks. The Bobcats will. One year later, Richmond is in that same pole position, leading the Class C field into the tournament — this time with a spotless 18-0 record.

They’re not the biggest team, lacking both height and, with only 10 players forming the squad of the class’s smallest school, numbers. But thanks to a flexible offense, fast-paced defense and deep-rooted team chemistry, they’ve been the best.

“Our theme all season has been ‘it’s not who we play, it’s how we play,’ because we like to dictate tempo,” Ladner said. “It seems to be working.”

It may seem like the same story as last year’s given the similarities in records, but a return to this point for the Bobcats was hardly a given. Not after forward Kelsea Anair graduated, leaving a void in the lineup that, given Richmond’s 142-student enrollment, would be tough to fill.

“I thought it was going to be a little rough,” senior point guard and captain Meranda Martin said. “Knowing that we lost … Kelsea Anair, one of our tallest players, and we were going to be a short team, it was kind of mixed feelings, I guess.”

The Bobcats did, however, still have Sydney Tilton. The 5-foot-9 junior has been the linchpin of the Bobcats’ inside-out offense, averaging 17.5 points and 14.8 rebounds per game while also proving adept at finding open teammates, be they Martin, senior guard MacKenzie Abbott or sophomore guard Caitlin Kendrick for good looks and shots.

“I think this year, more than ever, we’re utilizing people’s strengths,” Tilton said. “I can rebound and work inside better than, say, someone else, or I can create. I can draw people and then dish out and create other opportunities.”

“She’s definitely that big girl underneath that we need,” Martin said. “She’s really stepped up this year, which is a good thing for us. She’s really done well.”

The offense has only been a portion of what has made Richmond successful. The Bobcats are just as committed to defense — “We preach defense. We have been from Day 1,” Ladner said — and whatever they’re playing, they’re playing fast. On defense, that means full-court pressing, traps at halfcourt and an emphasis on causing havoc and forcing turnovers. And on offense, the Bobcats look to push the pace and catch opponents off guard, which is where the team chemistry — honed through years of playing together dating back to elementary school — makes a difference.

“The kids know where each other is,” Ladner said. “They’ve played with each other so long, when they communicate it doesn’t have to be verbally. Just with hand gestures and body movement.”

“We all like to play the fast-paced kind of game,” Martin said. “Get the ball, look ahead and try to drive before the defense can get set up. That’s what coach preaches to us. … Look for that person who’s going long, or look and drive before the defense gets set up.”

It’s an effective style, but it’s not without its detriments. Pressing and pushing over the course of a game is draining, particularly when the team doing it runs only 10 players deep. But what should burn Richmond out feeds into its advantage. The players on the roster are the same who are on the championship-contending soccer and softball teams. Running and exertion is what they know, and with the soccer team pulling off another run to the Class D championship game, Ladner was handed a group of athletes still in peak physical form.

“When they got to me, they were already in amazing shape, and it carried over,” he said. “We tend to wear teams down. By the fourth quarter we’re still looking to go, and they seem to be gassed.”

It might be Richmond’s greatest asset, and Ladner has made it a point to sharpen it.

“We go for an hour and a half to two hours every night, and the first half hour of it is usually conditioning and defensive drills every single night,” he said. “And the kids buy in. They’re extremely dedicated.”

And now it has the Bobcats back in the tournament, again with a gaudy regular season behind them, again hoping for a long run to the Augusta Civic Center and beyond. It didn’t pan out last time — the stage, simply, proved too big.

“That was one of the toughest things I’ve experienced in my basketball career,” Tilton said.

“At the end of the game, when it was that close playoff game that usually happens no matter what seed there is, everyone was nervous,” Martin said. “I think that we tried our best. It wasn’t our greatest game that we played.”

Painful as that loss was, both coach and players stopped short of calling this season an effort to avenge it. The loss hasn’t been much of a motivator for this season, and Ladner said the team has discussed it only twice since the season began.

“It just hasn’t come up,” he said.

Maybe so. But with another crack at the tournament upon them, the Bobcats like their chances of writing a different ending.

“I obviously wanted to win, but I’m kind of glad that happened because we were humbled, and we’ve been in that situation (now),” Tilton said. “We know that feeling. We don’t want to be there.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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