Memories: 50 years of ‘A’ boys tourney; Old Town, Stearns, Caribou, Bangor, Cony helped make Auditorium great

This story was published on March 17, 2005 on Page C5 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Editor’s Note: With the Eastern Maine Class A tournament moving to the Augusta Civic Center next season, the BDN looks back on some of the top Eastern Maine high school basketball teams and players to play at the Bangor Auditorium.

Part II, Boys Teams

Fifty years of schoolboy basketball, 50 years of change.

Short shorts are out, baggy shorts are in. The center jump is virtually out, the 3-point arc is in.

And yes, the location is headed out, too, as the Eastern Maine Class A tournament shifts from the Bangor Auditorium to the Augusta Civic Center next February.

But what a half-century of memories have been made at the aging edifice located between Dutton and Buck streets in Bangor – with Hampden Academy hoping to make one final memory when the Bangor Auditorium hosts its last Class A state final Saturday.

Trying to pull the biggest memories is a most subjective task, but many stem from state titles won by some of the region’s top programs since 1956, when the “new” Bangor Auditorium hosted its first EM tournament.

Here are a few championship memories, gleaned through records of the day and anecdotes of some of those who made or witnessed them.

Canoe City collaborations

The 1957 Old Town Indians became the first Eastern Maine team to win a Class L state title at the “new” Bangor Auditorium.

The Indians were led by Don Sturgeon and Tom “Skip” Chappelle, both first-team All-Maine selections.

“Don played inside and outside. He could do it all,” said Chappelle, a forward who earned All-America honors as a player followed by a long tenure as head coach at the University of Maine. “He was a great rebounder, and our trademark was to get out and go, and Don keyed it all by getting the rebound and starting our break.”

Sturgeon and Chappelle were joined in the lineup by Durwood Pond, Ed Delaware and Harvey Mitchell, with Tom Cyr and Chad Littlefield first off the bench for coach John Killilea, who went on to become an assistant coach in the NBA, including a stint with the Boston Celtics.

The Indians lost just once – blowing a 33-9 halftime lead against Bangor – and defeated Edward Little of Auburn 75-69 in the state final.

Ten years later, Clark Young and Kevin Baker led Old Town to the 1967 state crown, defeating Sanford 81-79 in the state game.

The Indians ended a subsequent 24-year title drought in 1991, with a Marty Clark-coached contingent featuring John L’Heureux, Casey Costigan, Matt Arsenault, Scott Springer and Steve Pooler. Old Town defeated Biddeford 68-63 in that state final.

Millinocket magic

One of George Wentworth’s greatest traits as the basketball coach at Stearns of Millinocket had to be his prescience.

Why else would he take the Minutemen to the 1962 New England tournament – just to watch?

“I don’t know how he did it, but he raised enough money to take us all to the New Englands,” said Jon MacDonald, then a freshman guard. “Then when we came back, I can’t remember that we talked a lot about winning a championship, but we just went out and played, and played every day until it got dark.”

The next year, the Minutemen went back to the New Englands as participants and won.

Actually, they weren’t supposed to go. Morse of Bath earned that honor by edging Stearns 61-60 in double overtime in the 1963 state final at the Auditorium. But when Connecticut pulled out of the New Englands, Stearns was invited – and the Minutemen went on to defeat Morse by two points in the All-Maine championship game.

The ’63 team was the first of three consecutive Stearns squads to win EM titles and the first of four straight teams with undefeated regular seasons.

MacDonald started at guard in 1963 with John Madore, 5-10 Dean Chase and 6-0 Terry Carr at forward and 6-3 Dave Vaznis at center. Carr and Vaznis were both first-team All-Maine choices, with MacDonald making the second team.

“The thing about that team I always remember is that everybody in the starting five could dribble, pass, shoot and defend, and you don’t get that very often,” said MacDonald, who went on to play at Maryland.

In 1964, Stearns went undefeated and beat Cheverus 69-59 in the state final at the Portland Expo, but lost in the first round of the New Englands.

The next year, the Minutemen earned a 10-point victory over Lewiston in the state final, but by this time the New England tournament had been disbanded.

During that three-year period, Stearns went 65-1 against Maine competition, 68-2 counting New England tourney play.

Vikings victory

Caribou’s rich schoolboy basketball tradition is defined largely by a single shot, Mike Thurston’s buzzer-beater from just beyond the center circle that gave the Vikings the school’s lone state championship in 1969.

But the program is not without other successes, particularly in the early 1980s when Caribou had three consecutive undefeated regular seasons, followed in 1983 by a run to its third Eastern Maine championship under coach Gerry Duffy.

Yet the magic of the 1969 season can’t be understated. The Vikings battled through a deep Class LL field to earn the top seed for the regional tournament. The Vikings then withstood a pair of close calls in the EM semifinal and final. In the semifinal, John Bapst of Bangor had a one-point lead and the ball with 32 seconds left, but Thurston stole an inbounds pass and made the layup to give Caribou the victory.

In the EM final against Lawrence of Fairfield, Caribou trailed by seven with less than three minutes left, but Thurston sparked a comeback and teammate Mike Kelley scored the game-winning basket with 12 seconds left after rebounding the miss of his own free throw.

The “cardiac kids” reputation was already well established when the Vikings found themselves trailing Westbrook by eight points with five minutes left in the state final. Caribou closed to within three in the final minute when Kelley was fouled while scoring on an offensive rebound. He made the free throw to forge a 63-63 tie.

Westbrook missed its try for the game-winning basket and the Vikings’ Peter Curran rebounded as time was winding down. Curran made an outlet pass across the lane to Thurston, who took two or three dribbles and launched a two-handed set shot that swished through the net as time expired – providing one of the most dramatic finishes in Maine sports history.

Ram tough

Dave Rollins remembers the dark side of the Bangor Auditorium, in the 1972 Class A state final, when he and Cony of Augusta fell to Westbrook 77-75 in double overtime on a long jumper by Blue Blazes star George Manoogian in the final seconds.

“I remember watching that shot thinking it was going to hit the front of the rim, and then it went in,” said Rollins, a two-time first-team All-Mainer.

Rollins was the only returning starter for the 1973 season, but his new supporting cast – Neal Glazier, Tim Leet, Bill Hayward and Tim Cooper – were hardly strangers.

“All of us grew up together on two streets, Sixth Avenue and the extension of Hutchinson Drive,” said Rollins. “Tim Leet’s dad had put up a hoop in the back yard where we played all the time.”

That chemistry suffered a blow early in the season when Cooper suffered an eye injury in a snowmobile accident.

Enter a point guard from the other side of the city, Paul Vachon.

“Vach stepped in and he was the missing link we needed,” Rollins said. “He broke the press, led our defense on the perimeter and didn’t turn the ball over. We soared from that point on.”

Due to the keen interest in the team, Cony played nearly all of its home games that season at the Augusta Civic Center – site of the 1973 state final.

The Rams went undefeated during the regular season to earn the top seed in Eastern A.

“We had one blip during the season and we always talk about it when we get together,” said Rollins. “We were playing Brunswick and were down 10, 60-50, with 2:36 to go. Coach Hunt called timeout, and he didn’t say a word. We went back out and we ended up winning 70-60. We scored 20 straight points after he called timeout.”

The Rams then worked their way through the regional tournament at the Auditorium, defeating Mount Desert Island 66-48 in the final, before returning home to the ACC to defeat Rumford 67-61 in the state final.

That was the second of three state championships Cony won while the Eastern A tournament was held at the Bangor Auditorium.

The Rams went undefeated to win the 1966 state title, thanks to a cast led by first-team All-Mainer Don Crosby, Fred Drake and Harry Webster. In 1978, Cony lost two regular-season games, but a star-studded lineup featuring first-team All-Mainers Gary Towle and Ray Felt and second-team choice Steve Busque surged to the state title, an effort capped off by an 84-63 win over Western Maine champion South Portland. That team became became the last Maine squad to win a New England title before the tournament was disbanded permanently.

Purple Panther power

Waterville High School had gone 36 years without a state title until 1985, when a unique collection of players with coaching connections carved out a unique chemistry to bring the gold ball home to the Elm City.

The Purple Panthers featured senior Dick Whitmore and sophomore Kevin Whitmore, sons of Colby College coach Dick Whitmore; senior Todd Hanson, a transfer from Piscataquis of Guilford whose father, Skip Hanson, had coached Foxcroft Academy to the 1975 Class B state title; and Eric Browne, whose father had coached in the Waterville system.

Hanson (Maine), Dick Whitmore (Brown) and Kevin Whitmore (Colby) all went on to play collegiately, as did starting center Scott Saft, a first-team All-Maine choice who went to Amherst, and sixth man Gary Karter, who played on a University of Southern Maine team that reached the NCAA Division III Final Four.

“The closeness of our team was something that still stays with us today,” said Hanson. “We’re all still pretty good friends.”

Waterville entered postseason play with just one loss and defeated Winslow in the quarterfinals before avenging its only loss by topping a tall and talented Bangor squad – 6-5 Bart Donovan, 6-7 Allyn Zanchi, 6-7 Bob Hand, Mark Lewis, Chuck Nadeau, and Matt Nelson all were on the Rams’ roster – in the semifinals.

Then in the regional final, the Purple Panthers rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit for a 66-63 win over Cony of Augusta.

The state final was another nail-biter, at least until the fourth quarter when Waterville outscored South Portland 32-9 to pull away for a 60-35 victory.

Bangor breakthrough

Bangor High School has a rich basketball tradition, but after Archie Tracy and Joe Taylor led the 1959 edition to the Class LL state title and a second-place finish in the New England tournament, a championship drought ensued for more than three decades.

Bangor nearly ended it in 1992 before falling to South Portland 81-79 in a five-overtime state final that ranks as one of the classic games in state history.

Five of the Rams’ top six players returned for the 1993 season, led by Mark Reed and also including Ryan Bradford, Dean Heistand, Chris Pickering, and John Tennett.

The Rams entered postseason play with a 15-3 record good for third place in Eastern A.

Coach Roger Reed’s club defeated Cony of Augusta in the quarterfinals, then Mark Reed scored 33 points as the Rams outlasted Lawrence of Fairfield 53-51 in overtime to advance to the regional final.

There, Tennett scored 21 points as Bangor eliminated previously unbeaten Old Town 63-53.

That set up a rematch in the state final against South Portland, but this time the Red Riots were without the graduated John Wassenbergh, who had scored 43 points in the ’92 final.

This time it was no contest, as Bangor cruised to a 62-37 victory at the Auditorium behind Pickering’s 17 points.

“I really believe the lessons learned from the five-overtime loss the year before helped us the following year,” said coach Reed. “We took a big step that year. We had it in our hands to win that game, but even though we didn’t, we came back determined to win.”

The drought was quenched, and the floodgates opened for the Rams.

Bangor has won five state championships since then, including 1995, when a team led by All-Mainers Matt Kinney and Danny Dahl helped the Rams to their first undefeated season since 1920.

Bangor won again in 1996, 2000, and in 2001, when Joe Campbell redirected a desperation shot by Zak Ray through the net as time expired to give the Rams an upset victory over Deering of Portland.

Two years later, Bangor knocked off Cheverus of Portland in the state final to win its sixth gold ball in 11 years.

“The ’92 championship was very important to us,” said Reed. “For 34 years we hadn’t won one. There were a number of very good teams over that time, but this was the one that got us over the hump.”

New kids on the block

Brunswick High School entered the 2002 season with little in the way of basketball tradition, and no Eastern Maine basketball tradition.

The Dragons were a Western Maine school until then, and so foreign was the concept of the Bangor Auditorium that head coach Todd Hanson – who played on the 1985 state champion Waterville team – brought the Dragons to the 2001 tourney to get a sense of the tournament road ahead.

“I had played there, so I knew all about the Auditorium,” said Hanson. “I wanted the kids to get a taste of the environment, the passion, and the pageantry of the place.”

It was a scouting mission well handled.

The 2002 Brunswick team was loaded, with veteran leadership coming from senior forward Dan Hammond and a precocious sophomore, Ralph Mims, on the brink of taking his place among the best players in state history.

The Dragons also had a 6-6 post presence in Taylor Caron, and guard Drew Pelletier and forward Mike Lobikis provided size and scoring depth.

Brunswick raced through the regular season undefeated but faced the prospect of meeting defending state champion Bangor at the Bangor Auditorium for its first-ever Eastern Maine tournament game.

“We just wanted to make it out of the quarterfinals alive,” said Hanson. Brunswick won that game easily, then went on to win the state championship – topping Deering of Portland 83-61 in the state final.

Friday: Girls Players