RICHMOND — Even as it piled up the wins and the high tournament seedings, the Richmond Middle/High School girls basketball team heard the qualms and criticisms.

“I wish I had a dime for every time I heard ‘Oh, are you guys moving up?’ ” senior center Sydney Tilton said. ” ‘When are you moving to Class C?’ “

People don’t make those dismissive comments anymore. Not after the Bobcats moved from Class D to Class C two years ago, and especially not after they got the conference alignment and schedule this year to go with it. After playing against the smaller schools of the East/West Conference, Richmond made the jump to join the Class C and B teams of the Mountain Valley Conference. It was a decision that meant facing deeper rosters, more talented players and a more physical style of play — challenges the Bobcats were more than eager to take on.

And, as it’s turned out, more than able.

“More competition, that’s what we all like,” junior guard Ashley Abbott said. “Our school is a very competitive school, we like the close games.”

Class C South’s second-smallest school is looking right at home against the higher pressure of the MVC. Richmond came into Wednesday seeded fourth in Class C South at 7-4, but the Bobcats have impressed halfway through their first campaign in their new conference. Richmond is 3-1 against Class B opponents, and its four losses — to Monmouth, Madison, Boothbay and Mountain Valley — have come against the top three teams in the conference and a Falcons team that is 8-3 at Class B.

“I’m not surprised. I know what these girls are capable of,” coach Mike Ladner said. “I think the girls were a little bit … overwhelmed seeing, especially at the beginning of the season, playing the four Bs and Monmouth, Madison and Boothbay, but now that we’ve had time to process it, I think we’re fine.”

After all, this is what Richmond wanted. As annoying as some of those “yeah buts” regarding the Bobcats success were, there was some truth to them. Last year, Richmond went 18-0 against its East/West Conference slate and the mostly Class D teams it consisted of, only to see its tournament run end after two games with a decisive loss to Old Orchard Beach.

The loss made it clear to Ladner — the easy schedule was doing the Bobcats no favors.

“They weren’t battle-tested,” he said. “I think out of our 18 games, we had two games where they were single digits.”

A promising season ended early for the Richmond boys as well, and both teams made the decision to become the school’s only programs to leave the confines of the East/West Conference.

“We … talked with our kids about it, got them to buy in this summer and just explained to them that it would be better in the long run,” Ladner said. “We wanted to play the competition that we’re going to see in the tournament.”

It didn’t take long for the Bobcats to realize they were in a different world. The team that didn’t lose in the regular season last year lost its very first game, 45-39 to Madison. The Bobcats won their next three, then dropped three of the next five to fall back toward .500 as some differences in the style of play between the two conferences began to emerge.

“The physicality,” sophomore guard Bryanne Lancaster said. “It’s definitely a lot more pressure on the ball.”

“You’re coming off the floor and you’re sweating buckets,” junior guard Caitlin Kendrick said. “It’s constant, it’s consistent, it’s always there. That’s something you either have to match or make your own.”

Richmond also had to ditch an aspect of its philosophy last year. The Bobcats ran relentlessly last season, using pressure and an up-tempo pace to run East/West opponents ragged. Against the deeper, more experienced MVC teams, however, energy is a precious commodity.

“In the East/West, we could out-run everyone, pretty much,” Kendrick said. “But in the MVC … we’ve got to keep ourselves energized, so we can’t press all game.”

“We have this core right here that, we rely on them, that we need to have throughout the whole game,” Tilton said. “We need everybody in.”

Ladner’s message, however, never wavered during what he acknowledged were early struggles.

“This year, our motto is ‘Trust the process,’ because the whole goal is to be better in February,” he said. “Once I explained that to them, I think it put it into a little more perspective. Since then, I feel like we’ve been clicking and playing really well.”

It’s started to sink in. Richmond followed a loss to Monmouth by throttling Dirigo, 56-29, and then routing Telstar, 57-11. Though not deep, the Bobcats have plenty of talent to get by. As of Jan. 12, Tilton was third in the MVC at 16.9 points per game and second in rebounds per game at 12.4. Abbott is fourth in 3-pointers per game and fifth in assists.

While the team’s confidence has grown, the players have always felt the underdog. There are only 10 players on the varsity team, and only six have varsity experience.

“We came in with a lot of people doubting us as well, a lot of teams saying we weren’t going to make it because we’re a smaller school, smaller team, younger team,” Abbott said. “A lot of teams just kind of put us in the lower category, but we’ve really proven ourselves this year.”

Those qualms and criticisms are gone. Now, the Bobcats are hearing a different kind of chatter.

“Teams don’t underestimate us anymore,” Lancaster said. “They’re like ‘This is going to be a good game.’ “

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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