The Vinalhaven Vikings basketball teams came close to the state championship finals this year.

The boys’ season ended last Saturday after an appearance in the Western Class D finals of the Maine Principals’ Association Basketball Tournament, losing to Richmond High 47-32.

This team is one only five Vinalhaven boys teams ever to make it this far in the tournament. Last year the boys were eliminated in the semifinals.

“I am extremely pleased with the results of this year’s team,” said Coach Matt Slivinsky. “I wish of, course, that we could have won, but on the whole I couldn’t be more pleased.”

The Vikings entered the tournament as the number 6 seed, taking on the role of underdog and beating third-ranked Valley-Bingham, and second-ranked A.R. Gould High School to make it to the finals.

In the final game, Vinalhaven faced the number 1 seed, Richmond High, two-time defending Western Class D champions, and a school with three times the enrollment of Vinalhaven. This is Richmond’s fourth trip to the Class D state championship game in five years.

Though there was disappointment among the Vikings after their loss, Slivinsky feels his team played to their potential. “We had a long talk after the game and they realized we did pretty well,” he said. “I think they’re pretty pleased. They were smiling after a little while.”

For senior Nathan Hopkins, this was a good end to his high school basketball career. “I never expected to make it that far,” said Hopkins. “I was really proud of the whole season, to lose seven guys [to graduation] and still make it back to Augusta and do better than we did the year before. It was something to be proud of.”

In the last three years the Vinalhaven boys have come a long way. In 2008, they finished the season in last place and didn’t win a single tournament game. “When I started [coaching the boys four years ago] they sort of took losing as normal,” said Slivinsky. But with Slivinsky’s help, and the help of Assistant Coach Alan Lazaro, things started to change.  “Now they realize they have to work hard. Life is full of challenges and you have to work hard to achieve anything. It’s been good to go from last place to second. We’ve worked hard,” said Slivinsky.

The Vinalhaven girls have also been gaining momentum, reaching the semifinal game twice in the last three years. Previous to 2008, the girls had not made the semifinals in 22 years. Though Coach Lindsay Davis could not be reached for an interview, Assistant Coach Samantha Carter talked about the team’s progress. “They worked really hard and they came a long way,” said Carter. “Overall it was a great season.” The Viking girls ended the regular season 14-2.

They entered the tournament as the number 2 seed, eventually losing the semifinal game to third-seeded Greenville, 46-41.

According to Carter, the Vikings’ loss to Greenville was especially disappointing because this year the playing field was level. “The top four teams were completely even,” she said. Carter acknowledged that the championship was “wide open” for any of the teams to take.

The Viking girls had the necessary experience and came in strong at the beginning of the semifinal game. But, she believes, they were a bit overwhelmed by their success and there were “definitely some nerves that came into play.”

Brooke Conway is a senior on the team. “I felt like we really worked together as a team,” she said. “I was glad we made it as far as we did, but I was kind of disappointed we didn’t go all the way.” Despite some disappointment, Conway recognized that it was a good season. “The coaches really stepped up to figure out what areas we needed to work on the most. That helped us to become better as a whole,” she said. “Each year is a building year. This year was easier because there were so many seniors who worked well together.”

The energy generated by the varsity teams has filtered to the lower grades. In addition to high school ball, Vinalhaven now offers basketball programs for students in grades 3 though 8 as well. In Carter’s opinion, the programs are becoming more substantial and that is reflecting at the varsity level.

Ten or 12 years ago, the Viking girls had difficulty getting enough players who really wanted to play basketball. Now, says Carter, they are consistently fielding a full team of solidly interested players.

As for the tournament, “that’s always the goal,” said Carter. “The kids always want to live up to and do better than the previous season. That never ends.”

Kris Osgood is a freelance writer who lives on Vinalhaven.