South Portland’s Ashlee Aceto, shown battling Sanford’s Jaylyn Bartolome for a loose ball during last weekend’s Class AA South championship game, received texts messages from former South Portland players after the Red Riots clinched their first trip to a state final since 1986. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

SOUTH PORTLAND — The tears flowed freely after the Class AA South girls’ basketball championship game, and so did the text messages.

Congrats, read one sent to senior guard Ashlee Aceto, you did it for all of us.

The regional final, so long an insurmountable hurdle for a South Portland team once again seeded first, finally had been cleared for the first time in more than three decades.

The Red Riots dug themselves out of an early hole against No. 6 Sanford to win 49-34 last weekend at Cross Insurance Arena. South Portland (18-3) returns to downtown Portland at 7 p.m. Saturday night to face defending champion Oxford Hills (20-1) for the state championship.

“It was kind of surreal because we’ve been waiting for this experience for so long,” Aceto said. “There have been so many very good teams before us who haven’t been able to get there, and they were all supporting us and cheering us on.”

Aceto spoke before a recent practice, standing beneath a red state championship banner with only two numbers on it: 1977 and 1986. South Portland also reached the state title game in 1982 but lost to Bangor.

Lynne Hasson, now in her seventh season as head coach, played on the 1982 team. Her two assistant coaches, Brianne Maloney and Abby Hasson, played on more recent South Portland teams that never reached the state final.

Fifteen times since 1986, the Red Riots have entered a regional tournament among the top four seeds. Not until this winter have they been the ones atop a ladder, snipping away at the net.

In 2005, they took a 19-0 record into the semifinals but lost in overtime to Sanford.

Kelsey Flaherty, a 2008 South Portland grad, says, “I might be biased, but I think there’s something special about South Portland. It’s a close-knit community.” John Ewing/Staff Photographer

“It still stings a little bit,” said Kelsey Flaherty, a 2008 graduate who went on to play at Bates College and now lives in Boston. “People say you don’t remember the wins and losses, but you definitely do.”

Hasson, who is Flaherty’s cousin, was an assistant to head coach Mike Giordano when Flaherty was playing. The fact that South Portland’s current staff all came up through the program is not lost on Flaherty, who wonders if Maine has ever seen an all-alumnae coaching staff involved in a basketball title game. At least two veteran observers could not remember a precedent.

“I might be biased, but I think there’s something special about South Portland,” Flaherty said. “It’s a close-knit community and (the coaches are) all alumnae, and now they’re leading this program and bringing it to great levels.”

In 2016, South Portland was the runner-up to Gorham as the No. 3 seed. A year later, the Red Riots were No. 2 and lost to Gorham by two points. In 2018, they were seeded first, but No. 5 Gorham opened their semifinal with 16 consecutive points and won again.

Last winter, South Portland again earned the top seed, but it lost in the regional final to No. 2 Scarborough, coached by Hasson’s predecessor, Giordano, who spent 17 years at South Portland.

The three senior captains – Aceto, Maggie Whitmore and Kaleisha Towle – have certainly seen their share of heartbreak, which made the regional title that much sweeter.

Kaleisha Towle, one of South Portland’s three captains, says past adversity in the playoffs helped the Red Riots this winter. “This time, we knew that we could do it, that it was our time.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“This time, we knew that we could do it, that it was our time,” said Towle, a 6-foot-2 forward/center who plans to continue her career at Williams College. “In the past, we had never faced any adversity like that. So to come in and all of a sudden be down 16-0, it was like, ‘What do we do?’ But we had experience under our belts and we knew what to do and didn’t panic.”

Whitmore, who plans to play at Bentley University, is one of three finalists for Miss Maine Basketball, along with Brooke Obar of Greely and Julia Colby of Oxford Hills. Whitmore’s next-door neighbor, Maddie Hasson, was a 2016 Miss Basketball finalist before continuing at Bowdoin College, where she is a senior captain on a squad playing in the NESCAC semifinals Saturday afternoon against Amherst.

After the regional championship last weekend, a sobbing Hasson shared a long embrace with Whitmore.

“She would always be out in her yard shooting and I’d always be out in mine,” Whitmore said. “Sometimes we would play H-O-R-S-E together. But it was mostly me watching her, and really looking up to her. After the (regional final), she was bawling her eyes out. She’s just the type of person who gets so happy for everybody else’s successes.”

Bowdoin College star Maddie Hasson, right, reaches out to hug South Portland senior Maggie Whitmore after the Red Riots won the Class AA South championship last Saturday. Hasson is a 2016 South Portland grad. Photo courtesy of Lynne Hasson

As busy as she is at Bowdoin, Hasson has found time to attend four South Portland games this winter. She hustled back from Brunswick after a practice earlier this month in order to present Whitmore with a commemorative basketball for reaching the 1,000-point plateau, as Hasson did four years earlier.

“Growing up, I idolized the girls that we were in high school when I was in elementary and middle school,” Hasson said. “So wanting to win a state championship for South Portland was not contingent on me being in uniform. There’s a lot of connections through families, a lot of siblings played in the program. And the Whitmores feel like family to me because I grew up next door to them.”

Maggie is the granddaughter of legendary Colby College coach Dick Whitmore, who was a volunteer assistant to Lynne Hasson until this year, when he began helping out at the middle school level. The basketball well runs deep in this town.

Tuesday’s practice included several alumnae, including Meghan Graff, a 2018 graduate who is now a sophomore at Bates. Of the dozen NESCAC Player of the Week awards this winter, five went to South Portland grads, three for Bowdoin’s Hasson and two for Graff. Graff’s mother, Marjorie Haney, was a captain on South Portland’s 1986 championship squad and later became an assistant coach.

“Every year we had the talent to win a championship and we kind of missed the opportunity,” Graff said. “I’m just so happy for them, and especially for Coach Hasson. It’s been such a long time coming.”

Christina Aceto, a 2007 graduate, was on the 2005 undefeated team that lost in overtime in the semifinals. She was the one who texted congratulations to her cousin, Ashlee.

“Of course you wish you could have done it,” said the elder Aceto, now 31 and working in Portland, “but it’s great to see this generation do it. For most of us, you’re a Red Riot through and through. You bleed red.”

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