The Hot Corner: Kane is able, and we’re the lucky ones

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Five hundred.

As a number of laps, it symbolizes the standard endurance test in auto racing.

Allow me to mix metaphors and argue that nowhere is the number more indicative of patience, persistence and passion than when it denotes victories by a high school basketball coach.

In any sport, at any level, getting halfway to 1K deserves our rapt attention and unqualified respect. But coaching high school hoops in Maine? It’s unthinkable, really. Multiply 18 games a year times playoffs times parental pressure times personal life and you get an improper fraction.

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That’s why you can count that exclusive in-crowd on one set of chapped, frostbitten hands. Gavin Kane, of Spruce Mountain by way of Rangeley by way of Dirigo by way of the University of Maine, joined the elite caucus Saturday afternoon with the Phoenix’s victory at Lisbon.

It couldn’t have happened to a better person. Or a greater role model. Or a harder-working coach. Or a more committed parent.

Kane is the complete package, and our local athletes are blessed that he grew up, played, studied and stayed here.

What strikes me about Kane’s route to the 500 Club is the uniqueness of it. It’s the broken road celebrated in country music and the road less traveled immortalized in poetry.

It started in the virtual exile of Class D, in the wilderness of northern Franklin County. It included a life-threatening illness and a brief detour to the Division I college ranks. At one point it involved coaching both of a school’s teams at the same time, keeping one atop the mountain while starting the other’s ascent.

Every coach starts somewhere, and Kane, who graduated from Mt. Blue and played under Jim Bessey — himself a 478-game winner — chose the Rangeley boys.

Even before Maine’s economy tanked and its rural population migrated, Rangeley was a K-12 community school with limited bodies and resources. All Kane did was guide the Lakers to the 1989 Class D championship.

From there, Kane made the transition closer to his Wilton home, next door at Dirigo High School in Dixfield, a decade past its previous extended tournament success. He merely celebrated a Class C West championship in his first season, starting a streak that would reach 11. Six of those seasons ended with the Cougars hoisting the Gold Ball symbolic of state supremacy.

Seeking a greater challenge at the end of that run, Kane added the long-overshadowed Dirigo boys’ program to his itinerary, briefly coaching both teams before handing the girls’ torch to Reggie Weston. After a steady climb, the 2009 team led by 6-foot-10 Tom Knight — now a fifth-year senior at Notre Dame — won a Class C West title.

Dirigo won three more in a row and a state championship, to boot, under three different coaches, and continues to thrive with Travis Magnusson at the helm.

Kane walked away to pursue an overdue dream. He spent two years as an assistant to Cindy Blodgett at UMaine, regularly making the four-hour round trip commute from home to Orono and back. When he wasn’t flying around the country on recruiting trips, that is.

Only family and closest friends knew that he was battling an aggressive form of cancer. It’s a battle that never truly ends with a complete sigh of relief, but Kane has emerged victorious. Each new day with a clean bill of health is a win greater than any he’s directed from the coach’s box.

Blodgett’s firing and a new regime at Maine coincided with the blending of rival schools Jay and Livermore Falls into one district and one promising athletic program. Kane was available, and as an outsider, he was an ideal choice. In three years as an MVC program, the Phoenix are 52-1 against league opponents.

Yet with all Kane’s absurd numbers and out-of-this-world winning percentages, count me in the camp that thinks he doesn’t get enough credit. I rarely hear his name when pundits from outside the tri-county region list their Best High School Coaches Ever.

There’s the perception — a wrong one — that Kane is a Phil Jackson who takes jobs that are ripe for the winning. It’s baloney. I’ve summarized the lack of winning tradition at his two prior stops and the marriage-of-convenience pitfalls of his current one. The success has been earned, and speaks for itself.

Others grumble that Kane hasn’t coached in Class A. Big deal. All 11 of his Dirigo championship squads were among the top five teams in the state, regardless of class. Yes, it’s possible to be a coaching legend outside of Portland, Bangor or Aroostook County.

Kane has done it all with class and without ego. In the interest of full disclosure, I am proud to call him a friend. I would be prouder to have a son or daughter play for him.

And the best news of all: Kane also turned 54 Saturday. His mentor Bessey coached 15 years beyond that age.

In other words, it’s a long way from here to the checkered flag.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is koakes@sunjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.

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