The Year in Sports: Triumph, tragedy and never a dull moment

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The year 2016 had it all.

All across the Twin Cities, the tri-county area and beyond, it was a memorable twelve months for local sports. It’s more than can possibly fit in one story, but this one will try to hit on as many of the standout moments as possible.

The memorable wins for local teams and athletes are numerous, but the earliest days of 2016 saw a pair of now-memorable losses for a couple teams that rarely met defeat.

Just six days into the new year, the St. Dominic Academy girls’ hockey team played in what might have been one the best regular-season games of that season — a 2-1 road loss to Greely — to stop its unbeaten start. A day later, on the same Family Ice Center rink in Falmouth, the Lewiston boys’ hockey team also lost for the first time in that season.

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Both teams only lost once more, then made runs to state championships, which were both won at Androscoggin Bank Colisee. For the Saints, it was their second state title and first since 2011. In between was a year spent playing a JV schedule due to dwindling roster numbers. That the title run was powered in part by a talented freshmen class made the second state title twice as nice.

The Blue Devils had a longer wait between titles — 14 years to be exact. But that’s an eternity for a Lewiston program that had accumulated 20 state championships. Getting No. 21 meant a third meeting with defending state champion Scarborough, with the first two meetings both ending in a tie. The third time truly was the charm for the Blue Devils, who scored late in the third period to break a 1-1 tie and get that long-awaited 21st trophy, and on their home rink to boot.

Those two title runs only scratch the surface of what happened in Sun Journal Sports Land in 2016. The 2015-16 winter sports season alone was filled with championship moments.

Three local girls’ basketball teams made their way to state championship games. While only one (Rangeley) experienced victory, the other two (Edward Little and Gray-New Gloucester) took their respective fan bases and communities on exciting rides.

The Lakers rode sensational senior Blayke Morin and her talented teammates to the Class D state championship over Shead. The Red Eddies and Patriots fed off more balanced attacks than just one player, with team mentalities leading them to their respective title games. EL fell to star-studded Gorham in the first Class AA state championship, while Gray-NG fell to a dominant Houlton team in the Class B state final.

No local boys’ teams played in state finals, but a few individuals dazzled on the hardwood. Before he started winning weekly awards for the University of Maine men’s team, Andrew Fleming was dunking on opponents for Oxford Hills. He was arguably the best player in the state and was a finalist for Maine Mr. Basketball, but that went to Hampden Academy’s Nick Gilpin, who now is a freshman at Bates. Fleming, meanwhile, made an immediate impact for the University of Maine, earning America East Rookie of the Week honors twice already on the young season.

There were a pair of MVC rivals that also stood out. Dirigo’s Riley Robinson capped off his career with more than 1,800 points, though sooner than he would have hoped after his Cougars team played for the state championship in 2015. Dirigo was knocked out in the regional semifinals by Waynflete, who advanced to play Winthrop. That’s where the Flyers met Jacob Hickey and Winthrop. Hickey finished as the Class C South regional tournament’s most outstanding player, but Waynflete won the tournament. Hickey did all he could for the Ramblers, scoring points in bunches like he did all season.

While Dirigo and Winthrop couldn’t win the big one at the Augusta Civic Center, the Lewiston cheerleading team did. The Blue Devils had a new coach in Lysa Laverdiere, but it was the same old championship results. Lewiston won yet another Class A state championship, then went on to win the New England Championship.

Across the river, Edward Little crowned champions as well. The girls’ indoor track team won the final event to edge out Bonny Eagle for the Class A state title. Outside on the slopes, the EL boys’ team won the Class A alpine skiing championship. On the Nordic skiing side of things, Mt. Blue swept both the Class A boys’ and girls’ titles.

The high school winter season came to an end in Lisbon, where the Greyhounds hosted the second-ever state Unified Basketball championship, which they lost to two-time state champ Hampden Academy. But the game on the court and the electricity in the packed stands for that game showed that the sport is just getting started.

Outside of the high school ranks, Bates men’s squash player Ahmed Abdel Khalek capped off his illustrious career with his second-consecutive College Squash Association national championship. He finished his career with 66 straight wins.

Also ending a season on win streak was a Maine Moose club hockey team that featured many local players. The Moose went unbeaten in tournament play to win the USA Hockey 16U Tier II national championship.

Just as the college spring season was starting, the Bates College community lost an icon in longtime baseball coach William “Chick” Leahey. The Lewiston native won over 300 games for the Bobcats and was a constant presence on campus. The baseball field along Central Avenue bears his name. A few months later, Bates lost another icon and Lewiston native, Bob Flynn, who lifted the college’s skiing program to national prominence as coach from 1968 to 1990. He also coached golf and paced the Leahey Field coaches’ box as head baseball coach.

Across the street, Garcelon Field bore witness to stellar seasons by the Bates men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. Both teams spent much of their seasons ranked nationally, and the Bates women hosted an NCAA tournament game in what was arguably the best season in program history.

As the college spring season was winding down, the high school season was just heating up. And while local teams didn’t bring in the same championship haul as they did during the winter season, there were still memorable seasons from teams across the region.

The St. Dom’s girls’ tennis team made sure the Sun Journal territory wasn’t shut out in championships, capping off an undefeated season with a 5-0 victory over Mattanawcook Academy for the Class C state championship, which was played at Lewiston High School.

The home teams tried their best to join the Saints as state champions, but both the Lewiston boys’ and girls’ teams fell in their respective Class A state finals. The Blue Devil boys advanced to the championship match thanks to a nail-biting victory over Mt. Blue in the North regional final.

There plenty of regional final appearances to go around in baseball and softball. On the hardball diamond, Edward Little (Class A North) Lisbon (Class C South) made it to the regional championship. The Red Eddies were the only team to defeat eventual state champion Bangor during the season, but fell to the Rams in the Class A North final. The Greyhounds fell to eventual state champ Sacopee Valley in the Class C South final, but had to get through defending state champ St. Dom’s to get there. The Hawks knocked off undefeated and top-seeded Monmouth Academy to make it to the matchup with Lisbon.

Three local teams played in softball regional finals. Edward Little upset top-seeded Messalonskee to get to a Class A North final matchup against Skowhegan, which was even more of an underdog as the sixth seed. In Class C, Lisbon made it from the No. 6 seed to the South regional final before falling to a dominant Madison team that wound up winning the state championship. Buckfield played for the Class D South crown, but fell to perennial power Richmond, which won its fourth straight state title.

In local lacrosse, the Lewiston girls made it to the Class A North final before falling to eventual state champ Messalonskee. The Maranacook/Winthrop boys knocked off top-ranked Camden Hills en route to the Class B North final, before falling to powerhouse Yarmouth.

Another local team ran into a championship-driven Clippers team. St. Dom’s was undefeated heading into its Class B North semifinal against Yarmouth, but the lack of big-game experience led to the Saints’ first and only defeat of the season.

As every year it seems, locals did well individually in outdoor track. The Lewiston girls recognized the most team success at the state championships, with a runner-up finish to Falmouth in Class A that surprised even coach Paul Soracco. The Blue Devils also came in second at KVAC conference meet, to rival Edward Little.

Local individual efforts on the track extended past the high school season.

Former Lewiston standout Isaiah Harris wowed as a freshman on the Penn State track team, earning All-America status and finishing fourth in the 800-meter run at the NCAA championships. He then tried to qualify for the Olympics, but took sixth place at the U.S. Trials when a top-three finish was needed to get to Rio. Still, not bad for a kid from Lewiston, Maine.

Summer time is often the quietest on the sports calendar, especially when considering the long vacation for high school students. The summer began with an American Legion baseball season that saw Pastime Club, made up of players from Lewiston, Lisbon and Leavitt high schools and Monmouth Academy, go undefeated into the state tournament. Rogers Post of Auburn only lost to Pastime before also advancing to the state tournament, where neither team could make it the final.

Midway through the summer was the annual Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl football game, which finished as a 58-52 win for the East in the highest-scoring game in Lobster Bowl history. Local players such as Oak Hill’s Dalton Therrien, Leavitt’s Levi Craig and Mt. Blue’s Nate Pratt-Holt stood out individually.

The end of summer meant the running of the Oxford 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway. After the track saw a tie in the Pass 150 earlier in month of August, there were high hopes that the same Pro All Star Series competitors would put on another good show in the big race. The 250 didn’t disappoint, with Wayne Helliwell Jr. — the same driver who initially won the 150 before it was declared a tie with Joey Polewarczyk — passing former winner Travis Benjamin with six laps to go to win his first Oxford 250.

The summer also saw the end of a long, winding journey for the “Turnah Flag.” The 17th hole flag at Turner Highlands Golf Course made rounds throughout the golf world for more than a year before returning home in June.

That was one of the lighter moments of the summer, but a much heavier one hit home for the Sun Journal later in the season. Longtime sports writer Kevin Mills passed away unexpectedly in early August. He spent nearly a quarter-century chronicling the local sports season — including some of the games, teams and athletes previously mentioned — like only he could.

The start of a new school year brings the promise of countless memorable and historic moments in high school sports, and the fall season got things to a promising start.

Accodlades and attention from the Lewiston boys’ soccer team’s 2015 Class A state title continued to roll in. The Blue Devils were the subject of a critically-acclaimed documentary released theatrically in April. That drew the national spotlight once the season started, with numerous national publications and networks descending upon Franklin Pasture to profile their international recipe for teamwork.

On the pitch, Lewiston’s rivals from across the river, Edward Little, upstaged the Blue Devils by earning the top seed in Class A North, due in part to a 3-2 win over the defending champions on their home field. The defensive-minded Red Eddies weathered a last-minute coaching change to finish the regular season 11-2-1, but ran out of steam in the regional semifinals with a 2-1 overtime loss to Camden Hills.

Led by senior playmaker Hunter Richardson, prolific junior striker Avery Pomerleau and a stout defense, Monmouth Academy held off pesky Lisbon to win its first Class C South soccer title and make its first state championship appearance since winning back-to-back Class D title in 1999-2000. The Mustangs ran into a buzzsaw from the North in defending champion Washington Academy, however, which made it back-to-back titles with a convincing 5-1 win.

In cross country, the St. Dom’s girls enjoyed the most team success locally, collecting Western Maine Conference and Class C South championships before finishing third in the state meet. Mt. Blue’s Tucker Barber dominated the postseason individually, sweeping the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, Class A North and Class A state titles.

In field hockey, Lisbon’s Chase Collier was recognized for her outstanding season by being named a finalist for Miss Maine Field Hockey, which was ultimately awarded to York’s Lily Posternak. Oak Hill made history by winning its first Class C state championship in perhaps the most satisfying way possible — by avenging last year’s state final loss to Maine Central Institute by the same 2-0 score.

No season ended in more dramatic or unlikely fashion,  however, than football. Inspired by the impending retirement of long-time coach Dick Mynahan, Lisbon shocked undefeated Winthrop/Monmouth with a 55-yard Hail Mary to the 1-yard line and Noah Francis’ touchdown plunge from there with 0.8 seconds left in an unforgettable 20-17 Class D South final.

One week later at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland, the Greyhounds had the tables turned on them by Maine Central Institute, which converted a bobbled snap on a potential game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt into a game-winning 20-yard touchdown run as time expired for a stunning 20-14 win.

On the college gridiron, Bates finished 3-5 but clinched its third consecutive CBB title with a 21-19 win over Colby and a 24-7 triumph over Bowdoin. The Bobcats have held or had a share of the title every year since 2011.

The early stages of the winter season promised more excitement as the Edward Little, Spruce Mountain and Winthrop boys’ basketball, Oxford Hills, Gray-New Gloucester girls’ basketball, Lewiston boys’ ice hockey and St. Dom’s girls’ ice hockey entered the new year without a blemish on their record.

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