WOODLAND, Maine — In this small, basketball-starved Washington County community, the Woodland Dragons are once again preparing to play for a gold ball, which would give them their second straight Class D girls state championship and third in four years.
Ironically, not a lot of people expected the Dragons to be on the precipice of such an accomplishment, particularly after losing two valuable pieces to the puzzle in Rachel Torrey and Courtney Cochran to graduation.
But don’t tell that to this edition of the Dragons, who steamrolled through their schedule to an undefeated regular season and blew through the regional tournament en route to Saturday’s 1:05 p.m. title game against Western champ Valley of Bingham at the Bangor Auditorium.
“Not a lot of people thought we could do it because of our (lack of) height, but after showing them what we could do the first couple games we definitely proved ourselves worthy of what we could do,” explained junior guard Ariel Knights, the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern Maine tourney, in which she averaged a solid 9-plus points per game in coach Arnold Clark’s balanced offense.
The top-ranked Dragons defeated ninth seed Lubec, No. 5 Washburn and No. 3 Fort Fairfield to make it back to the state championship game.
Knights returned to action in the tourney after suffering a finger injury in practice during the stretch run of the regular season, and she, along with classmate and backcourt mate Ashley Laking, sophomore forward Molly White, senior guard Julia Nicholas and freshman forward Taylor Cochran have fueled Woodland’s run.
“That’s the thing, they can’t shut down just one of us it’s the whole team as a whole we all shoot, we all score, we all pass it’s not one person,” said Knights.
Same thing on the defensive end, which has been a Woodland specialty over the last few seasons, as the Dragons are one of the best at forcing opponents into mistakes with in-your-face fullcourt pressure and a 1-2-2 zone defense.
“Everyone plays their part, it’s not like one main defender it’s like the whole team,” said Laking, who led the Dragons with 13-plus ppg during regional tourney play.
The fact that not a lot of people expected Woodland to emerge from Class D makes the regional title all the sweeter.
However, with a talented corps of juniors and sophomores returning, chemistry wasn’t a problem.
“Oh my gosh, I think it’s better than last year, I love my team this year, it’s so much fun,” Knights said. “It’s just so exciting, we all like each other, there’s so much chemistry between us all.”
Particularly since a lot of players on the team played with or against each other on junior high school or travel teams.
“I played with three of the girls in my junior high so it’s fun to have everyone together again,” Laking said.
Knights, the younger sister of former Woodland standout Julia Knights, certainly wants to put her own stamp on the program.
“Living in the shadow sometimes isn’t the best thing because everyone’s always like, ‘oh you got to live up to what your sister’s done but you just try to make your own mark,” said Knights.
The Dragons are moving up to the Class C ranks next winter, but don’t expect them to take a step backward. Woodland swept regular-season meetings with regional finalist Washington Academy of East Machias, Calais, whose only two regular-season losses came to the Dragons, Narraguagus of Harrington and Lee Academy, all Class C foes.
Winning another gold ball would possibly deliver such opponents an even bigger statement.
“It’ll look good moving up (if) we’re state champs this year,” Laking said.