In 1980, the Orono High School boys basketball team lost to Ellsworth in the Class B Eastern Maine semifinals, 68-65.
The next year, the Red Riots defeated the Eagles in the regional tournament — a 73-72 quarterfinal victory — en route to a Class B title after defeating Greely 79-67.
It was Orono’s latest state championship — until this year.
Following a 62-33 Class B North final loss to Ellsworth in 2022, the boys hoops team returned to defeat the Eagles 64-56 for the regional crown before beating Oceanside in the Class B state championship in a 61-58 victory on March 7.
The similarities between the two most recent state championship teams were obvious, and the latest champions got to listen to stories from members of that ’81 team before they faced off against Oceanside. The community coming together was a special aspect of Orono’s championship run this year.
Orono previously won state titles in 1961, ’62, ’67, ’69 and ’73.
“It’s hard to quantify, but as our crowds grew and more people in the community came out, that is a thing I heard. ‘You are so fun to watch, they play together,’” Orono boys basketball head coach Ed Kohtala said. “As we got ready for the state championship we had emails and notes from the ’81 championship game and guys who had driven or flown in to watch us and how much [this team] reminded them of their team.”
Orono wasn’t picked to finish first in Class B North. Not with Ellsworth, last year’s B North champion, and teams like Old Town and Winslow in the packed region returning great players. But the Red Riots kept that chip on their shoulder and continued to work.
“There’s something that I think I had to be reminded of with this particular team at Orono,” Kohtala said. “It really was a matter of the heart. We weren’t any more talented this year but we had the heart. The commitment between the players and the goal they shared, that was the big difference.”
Kohtala — who has coached everywhere from freshman basketball at Mt. Blue High School to assistant positions with the University of Clemson and the University of Texas — said similarities can always be found in basketball.
“I’ll tell you, it’s much more alike than it’s different,” Kohtala said of high school and college basketball. “What I mean by that is, teams coming together, sacrificing for each other, whether you’re in a yellow bus or in a chartered plane, it’s the laughter and how the guys get along.”
He went on to describe his first year at Texas in 1999, when the team started out 4-7.
“That team, a lot like this Orono team, united, came together and won the Big 12 regular season championship,” Kohtala said.
Orono had to beat undefeated Ellsworth and then 20-1 Oceanside in back-to-back games. The task was tall, but the Red Riots had been the underdogs all year.
“It struck me that in both games our teams had a ton of confidence,” Kohtala said. “The guys had a ton of confidence and really in all the tournament games our defense led us. Offensively we were good at times but it was the defense that carried us.”
In the state championship game, Oceanside finished on a 16-6 run including a 9-0 run in the final 90 seconds to cut the deficit to two before Caden Gray sank a free throw to clinch the win for the Red Riots.
During timeouts, Orono players weren’t listening to Kohtala. They were trying to breathe.
“I would say, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta get out on them,’” Kohtala said. “It’s one thing to say it but if you’ve been doing it for 31 minutes they were saying, ‘Coach, you try to get out on them.’ They were just trying to stand up.”
The players didn’t lose focus, however, and hung on for the victory. After the game, players spoke about how after losing last year in the regional final, they came together and proved people wrong.
“Last year we had it in our hands but got it knocked out and so we came back this year with redemption in that northern Maine game,” Orono junior guard Ben Francis said. “We wouldn’t be satisfied until we got here. Once we got here we put in the work we needed to.”
“It feels amazing, especially to prove everybody wrong,” Orono junior point guard Pierce Walston said. “Everybody was saying we wouldn‘t be here and it feels good to make everybody realize that Orono is on the map.”
Walston, the Class B North tournament MVP, was the energy for the Red Riots and a leader by example, stepping into a role that wasn’t a natural spot for him.
“The way he stepped into a role, because he’s probably a scoring two-guard in a perfect system, but to step in as the primary ball handler and to encourage guys and prod guys and find the right balance, it was a huge factor in our success,” Kohtala said.
Walston is also raising money for championship rings for the team. While the players were collecting bottles to help with ring costs, Kohtala sent a group text message to the team saying he was proud of them for taking control of the fundraising.
Basketball is universal, and pride was felt from him and the community.
“We had two guys come in from the regional champions from 1996 talk, then a man from the ’81 team and he told stories,” Kohtala said. “These guys from 40 years ago are still in touch and it was so cool to see guys from ’81 to connect to ’96 to ’23. We joked about who is going to come back in 20 years to talk about their run? That part I am still processing, the way the community came together and how former players and coaches reached out and wished us well.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of state championships the Orono boys basketball team has won. The team has won seven Class B titles.