READFIELD — All Karen Magnusson wanted was for her team to get in.

A turnaround season for the Maranacook girls basketball team had boiled down to one day, and the Black Bears and their coach sat at a Wendy’s after a game with Waterville, awaiting their fate.

Suddenly, the word came in. St. Dominic had beaten Traip. The Black Bears were in. And a team that hadn’t had much to celebrate in recent seasons could finally rejoice.

The girls started jumping up and down, we were crying,” Magnusson said. “That’s a big moment. I know teams went to states and all that, and those moments are real, but that for us is a big win for this program.”

Happy times were back at Maranacook, and Magnusson was a key reason why. In her first year as coach, she guided a Black Bears team that had finished in last place in Class B South the year before to the tournament at 9-9, and then to the B South quarterfinals after a preliminary victory over Spruce Mountain.

For her work in guiding the Black Bears back to the postseason, Magnusson is the Kennebec Journal Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. Jarod Richmond, who led a similar turnaround at Hall-Dale, Winthrop’s Joe Burnham and Oak Hill’s Mike Labonte were also considered.

Maranacook had hit hard times since reaching the 2015 Class C final, but it got a promising new coach in Magnusson, who had guided Dirigo and Cony in previous jobs and taken the Rams to the 2012 Class A state championship game. Maranacook was a far cry from that experienced Cony program, however, and Magnusson knew she needed to start small.

“The first thing was to create a culture of what I wanted the program to look like from here on going forward,” she said. “It was just about trying to build our program so we’d want to compete, and we’d want to win, but play to win and not play not to lose, which is a very different way to approach a game.”

Magnusson had a roster with eight sophomores and two freshmen, but she knew she had talent. Players who were too young to contribute before, like sophomores Gabby Green, Anna Drillen and Kate Mohlar, were now ready for the varsity pace, and as the Black Bears began to win games they didn’t use to win and challenge teams they never used to threaten, Magnusson started hoping they’d be able to get a taste for the tournament a year ahead of schedule.

Next year, I think we could be very good. But you never want to go in as a good seed and get your first experience (there),” she said. “I realized I had to get them to a tournament game, that as a program, that was our No. 1 goal. … We had that capability, now we needed to do it.”

Maranacook got that playoff berth, and its players soon saw themselves faced with the sort of pressure Magnusson wanted them to feel in front of a raucous crowd at Spruce Mountain.

“We have girls going ‘We can’t hear you coach, we can’t even hear each other calling things out,’ ” she said. “I said ‘That’s playoff basketball.’ Those are things they didn’t know. You could tell, it took them a whole half before they settled down and played like they’re capable of playing.”

Eventually, Maranacook figured it out. Amanda Goucher scored 11 points, Grace Despres added nine and the team at the bottom of the standings was suddenly headed to the Portland Expo.

Magnusson is confident the Black Bears will be back, and perhaps go deeper. But this winter was as ideal a start as she could have asked for.

I think in the next two years we could become better if we are more dedicated and put some more time into the game,” she said. “But it was important for us that next year wasn’t our first year to make a nice run into the tournament and be a good seed, and get the first experience they’ve ever had.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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