Waterville standout Morgan Frame celebrates with a teammate after the Purple Panthers sank Lake Region to win the 2007 Class B state championship at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of our series, “Remember When,” in which we revisit some of the memorable games, events, streaks and runs in high school spring sports we’ve covered over the last few decades.

Ted Rioux knew he was stepping into a good situation when he became the Waterville Senior High School varsity girls basketball coach prior to the 2006-07 season. The Purple Panthers had advanced to the regional semifinals the previous season, and returned a talented and young group. Rioux knew this team was strong enough to compete for the Class B state championship and would win a lot of games.

It wasn’t until early in the 2009-10 season, a little more than three years later, that a Rioux-coached Waterville team finally lost a game.

In winning three consecutive Class B state championships from 2007 through 2009, the Purple Panthers won 67 straight games. The win streak reached 67 games before Leavitt snapped it in the second game of the 2009-10 season. By then, the Waterville girls basketball team had established one of the great multi-season runs in Maine high school basketball history.

“How focused and determined they were was obvious. There was never a question what the goal was from the moment I got there. It was champions or bust,” Rioux said. “Once these kids got confidence, it was like we were running downhill.”

The core of the Purple Panthers had played together since youth basketball teams coached by their parents. They knew how to blend their talents on the court  before they got to high school, and Rioux was able to harness that and make them better.

“He knew our strengths. He had us playing against each other so competitively in practice, the games were easy,” said Steph Whitten, the point guard throughout the three-year championship run.

Morgan Frame remembers being a little scared of Rioux before she met him. Frame, now Morgan Baillie, had developed a good relationship with Waterville’s previous coach, Julie Bradstreet.

“(Rioux) came off much tougher at the beginning than he ended up being,” Frame said. “I remember the teamwork and common goal we had at such a young age. We knew we were going to win. We had that mindset at a young age.”

Added Jennifer Nale, a freshman on the 2007 team: “The people I was on that team with are people I was playing with since I was 6. This was the first time I had a coach who wasn’t a friend’s dad. (Rioux) said he might get loud. I was ready for it. He knew we had talent he could coach.”

Two games in the 2007 postseason nearly derailed Waterville’s run before it started. First, the top-seeded Panthers were pushed by No. 4 Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln in the Class B East semifinals. The Panthers pulled out a 57-55 victory after Lynx guard Michelle Paul’s 30-foot desperation shot with one second left missed long.

“That was probably one of the most fun and intense finishes, because we hadn’t been played like that all season,” said Whitten, who now works as an operating room nurse at Maine General and is expecting her first child this summer. “Those games are the most fun, though. You have to keep going 100 percent of the time the whole game.”

Waterville girls basketball players, including Morgan Frame (holding Gold Ball) celebrate after they won the 2008 Class B state title. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

Second, it took Waterville overtime to beat Lake Region in the Class B state final, 52-51 at the Cumberland County Civic Center (now Cross Insurance Arena) in Portland. With 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Nale sank her only shot attempt of the game to tie it and send it to overtime. In overtime, Whitten made 4 of 6 free throws to clinch the win. Frame scored 23 points.

“We’d played so many games and my body was finally tired. I remember hitting that shot and thinking, OK, I’m contributing,” said Nale, who went on to play college basketball at Colby College, where she graduated in 2014. Nale plans to enter the University of Maine School of Law in the fall.

Neither of Waterville’s next two championship runs was as tough. The Panthers were more experienced now. Waterville’s closest game in the 2008 regional tournament was a 20-point win over Mattanawcook in the final, which was followed by a 54-35 victory over Lake Region in the state championship game rematch at the Bangor Auditorium. Waterville trailed the Lakers early. During a timeout, Rioux was blunt with his team, yet able to give it the boost it needed.

“I said, ‘Girls, this can’t be how it ends,'” Rioux recalled.

In 2009, Waterville won its third straight state championship with a 54-42 win over York back in Portland. Again, the Panthers pulled away.

“It was a tie game with four minutes left,” Rioux said. “I said, ‘If you go 65-1, you’ll always remember who beat you.'”

The win streak was never a point of pressure, Frame said. The way the Panthers saw it, the win streak was a 10-point cushion before they even took the court. They knew most opponents would wilt as soon as Waterville built a small lead. This was the team that has won how many in a row? This is the script.

The Waterville girls basketball celebrates its victory over Lake Region in the 2008 Class B state championship game in Bangor. Greg Rec/Portland Press herald

“It was more like a boost of confidence to it,” Frame, who went on to play college basketball, first at St. Anselm before completing her career at the University of New Hampshire, said. Now Frame lives in Oklahoma City with her husband, Derek Baillie, where she trains at the US high performance rowing center, hoping to earn a spot on the national rowing team for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Frame was named Miss Maine Basketball in 2009, but was never a one-person show for the Panthers. A ferocious inside presence, opponents utilized a number of junk defenses designed to slow down Frame in the low post. All those did was open opportunities from the perimeter for players like Nale, Whitten, and her sister Stacie, Sarah Given, Paige Gardiner, and Liz Bell.

“We had a really great dynamic. I think that’s why we were challenging. Nobody could guard us,” Nale said. “You can’t do a triangle and two (defense) on a shooter when everyone can shoot.”

Waterville team captains Morgan Frame, left, and Paige Gardiner hold the Gold Ball after the Purple Panthers beat York in the 2009 Class B state title game. John Ewing/Portland Press Herald

Rioux recalled players coming to the bench during a timeout and thanking Frame for taking on so much defensive attention that they were able to get wide open shots. That unselfishness made a good team better.

“We always had somebody else who could shoot. You look back now, they made a lot of shots,” Frame said.

“The easiest play was a simple pick and roll,” Whitten added. “If we got it to Morgan, great, game over. If not, I had speed to get by the defender or get it to somebody for an open shot,” Whitten said.

Nale looks back at those three seasons with nostalgia. It was weird being so young and having the eyes of an entire city, of the state, on you. A couple years ago, around the 10th anniversary of the 2009 Gold Ball, members of the team shared memories and photos online. It was fun to remember and bond over basketball again, Nale said.

“I love that Maine loves basketball the way it does,” Nale said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

 

 

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