SOUTH PORTLAND — In each of the last two years, the South Portland girls’ basketball team has sat and watched as Gorham cut down the nets in the Class AA South championship game. Last year the Red Riots lost to Gorham by two points in the regional final, a game decided in the final seconds.

“We’ve been right there,” said Lynne Hasson, in her fifth year as the South Portland coach. “It’s hard. You have these Gold Ball dreams and you’re so close and you end up watching the other team cut down the net. And you think, ‘When is it going to be our turn?’ ”

Well, maybe this year.

The Riots come into the season as the favorite in Class AA. They have talent, they have experience, they have depth. They have size to play big, outside shooting to break a zone, speed and athleticism to play fast. They always play a pressure defense that harasses opponents all over the court.

They are, in just about every opposing coach’s opinion, the team to beat.

“I just think they have really good basketball players, kids who know how to play the game,” said Deering Coach Mike Murphy. “I think the pressure is on them.”

The Riots know this. And they’re not worried.

“We’re not thinking about the pressure,” said senior guard Eva Mazur, who has accepted a scholarship to play at Division II Saint Anselm College. “We’re not thinking about that at all. We’re thinking about what we have to do. We know we have to work hard.

“We’re not going in thinking we’re at the top of anything. We’re going in thinking we’re at the bottom.”

Mazur is one of the four returning starters, with guard Meghan Graff, and forwards Katie Whitmore and Maggie Whitmore. Senior Sarah Boles is likely to be the fifth starter but the Riots have five other players capable of starting and contributing. They are Jena Lecki, Bella Cloutier, Kaleisha Towle, Libby Cloutier and Ashlee Aceto. They each have their own talents – be it shooting, rebounding or defensive – that make the Riots so tough to beat.

“With playing time, nothing is handed to you,” said Graff, who averaged 13.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.3 steals. “Everyone is fighting for minutes. Everyone wants to be in the starting five. Everyone wants to be the sixth man coming off the bench. That means every practice we have to give everything we have. You take one practice off and someone replaces you.”

With such a deep bench, the Riots will be able to rotate players in and out of the lineup without losing much.

“That’s exciting,” said Hasson. “But it’s also challenging. As coaches you’ve got to make sure your best players get quality minutes. The nice thing is they can get a break and we’re not nervous about putting someone else in.”

Hasson has addressed the team’s preseason ranking with her players. She wants them to know “we’re not head and shoulders above anyone.”

In fact, after a recent scrimmage, she let them know how far they have to go.

“We looked really good at times,” she said, “but at times we were not playing with intensity and you can’t do that. That’s what will hurt us the most, if we think we can just walk on the court and win. We’re not that good.”

She then lists a number of teams that can give the Riots a challenge: two-time champ Gorham, Scarborough, Cheverus, Portland and Oxford Hills. “This is certainly not going to be a cakewalk for us,” she said.

Hasson pushes the team at practice, sometimes going a little late when something important needs to be covered. And the players like it.

“She is super passionate about this sport,” said Mazur. “It makes it so much fun for us.”

“She’s one of the most competitive people I know,” said Graff. “And I think it rubs off on us. It makes us work harder because we want to be great.”

Boles, who has one of the better outside shots on the team, likes the role the Riots are in this year. She likes the pressure.

And she and her teammates are driven by the memory of the last two years.

“We take that to heart,” said Boles. “It’s always in the back of our minds. It reminds us how hard we have to work.”

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