PORTLAND — Most Division III schools would have considered Mike Fennessy a can’t-miss prospect the moment his basketball sneakers set foot on the campus.
University of Southern Maine coaches, fans and teammates never will forget the night of Jan. 16, 1992, when the wiry freshman from Lewiston backed up that label literally.
USM and Plymouth State played a two-hour game of ‘can-you-top-this?’ at Gorham’s Warren Hill Gymnasium. Every Panthers basket provoked a Huskies response. Most frequently it came in the form of a cold stare and a flick of Fennessy’s wrists, followed by a telltale ‘whoosh’ drowned out by a partisan roar.
“You hear guys talk about being in the zone, and that’s pretty much what it was,” Fennessy recalled. “I think I missed two or three shots in the entire game.”
Sixteen of those shots touched twine, not to mention a flurry of free throws. When Fennessy finished his masterpiece, Southern Maine secured the win by an NBA-like 118-109 count.
And in only his 14th college contest, Fennessy had 47 points, a school record that nobody has threatened a generation later.
One impossibly historic night does not a career or a lifetime achievement award make. But it’s safe to say that the game of Fennessy’s life was a giant leap toward his enshrinement Sunday night into the Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t even realize I was close to that number until I heard some of my teammates talking about it near the end of the game. I figured maybe I was in the mid-30s,” Fennessy said. “I had decent nights in high school. I got into the 30s a few times. But nothing like that.”
From youth travel teams to one of the most successful squads in the history of his high school to a non-traditional but unforgettable collegiate career, a few things were certain about Fennessy.
If he was on the court and wearing a uniform that was the same color as yours, he immediately made your team better. There was a good chance you would win. And even if you were on the opposing or losing side, Fennessy likely would do something to make your jaw drop or to force a half-smile out of respect and appreciation.
“He was so purposeful in his approach to the game of basketball,” said Andrew Dolloff, Fennessy’s coach as a senior at Lewiston. “There was no foolishness with him. He was never late to practice. He was never lazy or disrespectful to his teammates or coaches in any way. He was a great leader by example. He was not one to speak up to the other kids verbally. He spoke through his effort and work ethic.”
Devil of a season
Prior to his heroics at Southern Maine, Fennessy led Lewiston’s best team in a quarter-century.
The Blue Devils were in transition when Fennessy reached high school. Longtime coach Fern Masse retired after Fennessy’s freshman year to focus on his duties as athletic director. Two years later, Mike McGraw guided Lewiston to a middle-of-the-pack finish in Western Class A.
Dolloff, a rookie to Class A who cut his coaching teeth at Class C Dirigo High School, became the third boss in four years. He inherited a senior-laden team in 1989-90. In addition to Fennessy’s perimeter presence, the Devils boasted the brawn of Eric Lachance and 1,000-point scorer Chris May, versatile Rodney Camire, junior point guard Matt Murphy and a deep bench that included Joe Levesque, Morey Fontaine and Cory Storer.
“Most of us had played together all the way up through on all-star teams, so we knew we had a chance to do something special,” Fennessy said.
“There was a lot of talent on that team,” added Dolloff, now superindentent of schools of RSU 21 in Kennebunk. “Sometimes there weren’t enough balls to go around.”
Fennessy led the Southern Maine Activities Association with an average of 20 points per game. Lewiston displayed a knack for winning the close games — 11 of them by seven points or fewer.
Balanced as they might have been, the Devils and their first-year coach knew where to turn when minutes dwindled to frantic seconds.
Lewiston legged out an overtime road win against Westbrook early in the season. The home rematch was tied at 53 when Dolloff called timeout with three seconds remaining.
“We set up a play for Mike to come off a stagger screen,” Dolloff said. “Eric Lachance and Chris May set the screen. Mike rolled off it perfectly. He took one dribble, spun 180 degrees and drained it with no time left on the clock. That was Mike. He was smooth in everything he did.”
That escape in early February propelled Lewiston to an undefeated regular season. The streak continued with a 59-53 win over Cheverus in the regional quarterfinals at Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
His team trailing by one with eight minutes to play in the semis, Fennessy scored 10 unanswered points — including his fourth and fifth 3-pointers of the game — and Lewiston turned a tussle into a laugher, 80-59, over Deering.
Having established dominion over the SMAA all winter long, Lewiston was a heavy favorite in the final against Oxford Hills, a low seed from the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference. But the Vikings, led by their own explosive star in Dan Ladd, vanquished the Devils’ dream with a 66-57 upset.
“It was a disappointment for all of us. You still remember it 20 years later. You always are going to remember it one way or the other. We wouldn’t have been there without (Fennessy), that’s for sure,” Dolloff said. “What’s interesting about that season is the next game always was the one we heard we were going to lose. ‘Oh, you’re playing Deering. They’ll beat you. South Portland? That’s the one.’ Then we finally get to the last game, everyone’s saying we have it in the bag, and that’s the one we didn’t get.”
Never one to boast of his own accomplishments, Fennessy’s recollection of the details gets even more foggy when he’s asked about the bitter end of his high school career.
“The thing I remember about that game is that we shot terribly for some reason,” Fennessy said. “Up until that point in the tournament we had played very well. I don’t know what it was about that night.”
Fennessy had Division I aspirations and hoped that a year in Bridgton Academy’s prep program would expand his options. Instead, he found that most major schools already had their recruits pegged at the start of his postgrad season.
He eventually signed with USM and coach Al Sokaitis. But Fennessy quickly learned that it wasn’t a wasted year.
“It was an adjustment. I gained a lot from it. You don’t get to play against many 7-foot and 6-foot-10 guys in Maine,” he said.
Fennessy enjoyed ample playing time his freshman year before the breakout game. After lighting up Plymouth State, however, he rarely came off the court. The Little East Conference named Fennessy its rookie of the year.
But the crash came as abruptly as the ascent. A severe ankle injury short-circuited Fennessy’s sophomore season.
Suddenly, the boy who said he spent every Sunday shooting around at the Multi-Purpose Center while his father ran the city’s rec program was a young man separated from his first love. With basketball out of the picture, Fennessy’s interest in school waned. He dropped out.
“I was a little immature. I kind of lost my way a little bit,” Fennessy said. “But I continued to play basketball in all the rec leagues down in Portland.”
Four years later, Fennessy was taking a break from a game in an elite men’s league when a visitor approached him.
“It was Dan Costigan (the new USM coach). We talked a few times, and I decided it was time to finally go finish up,” Fennessy said.
He did so with a flourish, making the Little East all-conference first team each of his final three years.
Fennessy fashioned two additional games of 36 points and another with 37, giving himself four of the 11 most prolific individual performances in USM history.
Today, he remains in Southern Maine’s top 10 in numerous career categories, including points (third, 1,844), scoring average (fifth, 19.6), 3-pointers (second, 176), blocked shots (third), rebounds (seventh) and total free throws (second).
“He was so smooth, but he was a good athlete in other ways, also,” Dolloff said. “He had leaping ability, and he could block shots and rebound because of that. He ran the floor extremely well. He could shoot off the dribble or the pass. And he was quiet about it. There was a quiet determination about everything he did.”
Fennessy, now 38, considered fellow A-L Hall of Famer Brian Seguin, a 1988 LHS graduate, an early role model.
In addition to his father and Dolloff, Fennessy’s adult influences included Masse, former LHS athlete and Monmouth Academy coach Rick Carleton, and former YMCA travel and current Edward Little coach Craig Jipson.
Carleton, also one of Fennessy’s counselors at Hoop Camp, will be his presenter at the hall of fame ceremony.
“Everyone sort of has a little piece in what you become,” Fennessy said. “You can learn something from all your teammates and coaches.”
Not yet involved in coaching himself, primarily due to a busy work schedule, Fennessy finds time to play in any weekend league that will have him.
In fact, he has two games scheduled Sunday before the banquet.
“One is in the morning, and the other one is in the afternoon,”Fennessy said. “That second one’s a regular-season game, so I’ll leave early if I have to.”
Indeed, some things in life are a can’t-miss.