Paul Vachon was a young man looking for a coaching chance. A trio of nuns — Sisters Maria Ricci, Barbara Brennan and Dorothy Sullivan — gave it to him, bringing him on board at St. Mary’s School in Augusta in 1976 to coach the middle school basketball team.

It was their first encounter, but not their last. The sisters wound up at Catherine McAuley High School, which in the 2000s started sending girls basketball teams to the Class A state championship game. That’s where Vachon — by then the coach of the powerful Cony Rams — would often be waiting.

“They would always say ‘I’m praying for you,'” Vachon said, “‘But not hard enough.'”

While girls basketball thrived in Maine in the decade-plus after the turn of the millenium, the Cony and McAuley programs were a cut above the rest. From 2000 to 2014, McAuley made 10 state finals, Cony made six. There were only three seasons, a stretch from 2008-10, in which neither team was in the championship game. McAuley had three Miss Maine Basketball winners and Cony had two in that period alone; no other program has had more than two all-time.

Four times — 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2012 — they met for the title, with McAuley bookending the series with wins and Cony taking the middle two.

“The rivalry with Cony was intense,” said Kelly Parks (née Ebrahim), a McAuley shooting guard from 2002-05. “We wanted to play them because we wanted to beat the best. And there was no one better than them.”

There were great players, names like Sarah Marshall (now Ryan), Ashley Cimino and Alexa Coulombe for McAuley and Katie Rollins, Rachael Mack and Cassie Cooper (now Forcier) for Cony. There were superb coaches, like Vachon for the Rams and Liz Rickett, Billy Goodman and even Vachon’s daughter Amy for the Lions. There were rabid fans and packed arenas, and hard-fought games with everything on the line.

But while the era came to an end years before, it was officially committed to history this summer with the news that McAuley, which was renamed the Maine Girls Academy in 2016, was closing its doors. On July 26, nearly three weeks after the announcement, the school had a send-off event, at which alumni returned to the Portland school to watch a final basketball game in the gym that had produced one champion after another.

Cony’s Rachel Mack shoots a jump shot over McAuley’s Rebecca Delude during the 2007 Class A state championship game at the Augusta Civic Center. Portland Press Herald file photo by John Ewing

For former Lions players, the news was devastating.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Carolyn Freeman, a Lion from 2003-06 and an MGA assistant coach, her voice quivering while she spoke. “There was a lot of sadness, there was some anger. … It’s not just basketball. It’s a different atmosphere.”

And for the former Rams that played them, it wasn’t much easier to take.

“It definitely brought up some memories of how many special moments we shared together,” said Forcier, who graduated from Cony in 2007. “Every time we played against McAuley, you just knew that they had the same love and respect for the game.”

A DIFFERENT KIND OF RIVALRY

There was no hatred or bitterness when Cony and McAuley played. Cony saved its hatred for Skowhegan, Lawrence and Messalonskee. For McAuley, it was Cheverus and Deering that brought out the real vitriol.

“I don’t think it was a rivalry. I really don’t think so,” Paul Vachon said. “I just think there was a lot of respect for both programs.”

There was, however, a sense of urgency. These were the top two teams in the state. The players knew it. And each showdown was a chance to edge the other for the top spot.

“With how many teams are in the East and West, and of all teams, those two are going to meet three out of (six) years?” said Mack, the 2008 Miss Maine Basketball winner. “They were the best in the West and we wanted to take them down.”

“It was like two titans clashing and going ‘Okay, bring it,'” said Rollins, the 2005 Miss Maine Basketball winner, who went on to play at Harvard. “Bring your best game, let’s see who’s worked harder and let’s see who’s going to earn this.'”

For McAuley, championship games against Cony — which won five titles in the 13 seasons before the Lions even made their first final — were a chance for the rising program to make a statement.

“They were the teams to beat. And they were tough,” Parks said. “They were tough to beat, and when we did, it was a big

Cony’s Cassie Cooper shoots a jumper over McAuley’s Abby Wentworth during the 2007 Class A state championship game at the Augusta Civic Center. Portland Press Herald file photo by John Ewing

deal.”

With the exception of one scrimmage, all encounters came in the championship game, where throngs of fans would turn one side Cony red and the other McAuley green.

“It felt like everybody from Augusta and Portland was in the stands,” Forcier said. “There was a lot of intensity.”

“You know you’ve only got one shot,” Rollins said. “When you played McAuley, it was 100 percent for the championship. You never played McAuley if it wasn’t a high-stakes game.”

That pressure reached the coaches as well.

“Vachon was always saying ‘You’ve got to be quicker. Abby Wentworth’s going to take that from you,’ or ‘Ashley Cimino’s going to block that,'” Forcier said. “Even though we didn’t play them at all during the season, they were what we were preparing for.”

THE SHOWDOWNS

When McAuley arrived on the championship stage, it first dealt with other central Maine opponents. The Lions lost to Mt. Blue in 2000 and fell to Nokomis in 2001.

Even with the losses, it was clear a giant was emerging.

“That’s when they were really getting on the map,” said former Nokomis guard Lindsay Withee, whose team lost a rematch with McAuley in 2003. “They did a great job of passing the ball inside. Sarah (Ryan), she was one of the best players I’ve ever played against. … She could literally do everything.”

Cony, the dominant team of the late ’80s and ’90s, got its crack at the rising power in 2002, but stumbled as McAuley earned a 67-61 win.

Payback came three years later, as an undefeated Cony team anchored by Rollins toppled McAuley, 58-40.

“I remember being up and never thinking the lead was enough,” Rollins said. “I never felt like we were going to win until I got taken out with about 50 seconds left.”

In 2007, Cony held Cimino to seven points and knocked off McAuley 46-41 at the Augusta Civic Center.

“In ’05 and ’07, I think we were the better team. I really do,” Vachon said. “We felt that playing at the Augusta Civic Center … they had to come into our house and beat us there. You know what, it wasn’t going to happen.”

Vachon stepped down after 2008, and the teams didn’t meet again until Karen Magnusson guided the Rams back to the final in 2012, where McAuley won 54-41. Both teams were undefeated coming in, but enough time had passed that the historical feel to the matchup had dimmed.

“I think it sort of faded,” said Molly Mack, a junior on that McAuley team. “We were a young team then, so I don’t really know that all the girls had bad blood with them from playing before.”

FOREVER JOINED

The schools were opposites of each other. One was all girls, the other was co-ed. One was private, one was public. One took students from throughout the state, one was entirely hometown and homegrown.

When it came to basketball, however, Cony and McAuley were more similar than different.

“One of the things that was common … was the support that both teams got from the community,” said Amy Vachon, a star at Cony in the 1990s and the coach of McAuley’s 2011 championship team. “The support that those girls and we received playing at Cony every night was awesome, and it was the same thing at McAuley.”

And for a while, those communities were turning out to watch the very best basketball the state had to offer.

“I think if you went person by person with the starting lineups on both teams, you couldn’t have asked for a better matchup from any other team in the state,” Forcier said. “You say it should be the two best teams in the state playing in a championship game, but it’s not always the case. And it always felt like that was the case when we played McAuley.”

It’s now a footnote to the state’s basketball history, with the school’s closing providing a stark reminder. But those involved in the games hope that won’t affect the memories.

“I think I just kind of put myself in their shoes of how disappointed and sad I would be if my high school tradition was coming to an end,” Rollins said. “You hope that that history and those stories stay alive, even if the doors don’t open.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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