A town fire truck meets a school bus full of athletes and a motorcade of parents and siblings at the only red, yellow and green beacon in this one-stoplight town. The impromptu parade makes the 3/4-mile hillclimb from Towle’s Corner Store to Dirigo High School, siren wailing, horns blaring, celebrants of all ages screaming and waving out of rolled-down car windows.

Did we mention that it’s after midnight?

“Nobody calls the cops,” Dirigo baseball coach Ryan Palmer said. “Nobody says a word, because everybody knows. Everybody knows and everybody cares.”

That’s how they celebrate sports championships around here. They do it well, do it proudly, and do it often.

In an era of plummeting youth population, of diminished job opportunities, of most high school athletic championships won by schools within short driving distance of Portland, Lewiston-Auburn or Bangor, Dirigo and its 300 students nestled in Northern Oxford County steamroll the opposition like a little engine that could.

The boys’ basketball team will confront Calais at 9:05 p.m. Saturday in Bangor for the Class C championship. If the Cougars win, it will be the school’s 33rd state championship in eight different sports. If they don’t, it would mark the 21st runner-up trophy.


Twelve of those state titles have come since the turn of the century, in the current players’ lifetime. Senior guard Tyler Frost, to cite only one example, has played in six regional championship games in three sports during his career.

“Our trophy cabinet is bulging at the seams,” Dirigo athletic director Mike Hutchins said. “Every season we don’t have a place to put all the trophies the kids win. It’s a great, positive atmosphere. The kids and the school are committed to excellence, and they achieve it.”

Both the regional and community newspapers of record have labeled Dirigo’s cluster of communities “Titletown,” and surely the school has no current peer when it comes to per-capita, around-the-calendar success.

Just this winter, both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, coached by husband-and-wife Travis and Karen Magnusson, played in the Western Maine finals. Wrestling repeated as Class C state champion. Cheerleading was runner-up at both regionals and states. Nordic skiing wore the Mountain Valley Conference crown.

“It starts with the parents and the kids. The kids just want it. Nobody wants to be ‘that team’ that doesn’t win,” Dana Whittemore, a longtime youth wrestling, baseball and football coach at all levels of the Dirigo system, said. “And we have a good group of coaches that try to do things the right way.”

“As a coach, you try to give them a day off and they want to crucify you,” Palmer said. “They don’t want to be home playing video games or even spending time with their girlfriends.”


Titletown’s first hardware? Then-Dixfield High School’s now-defunct hockey program pulled off its own Miracle on Ice against juggernaut Saint Dominic in 1958. Dirigo has delivered the rest of its championships since 1975.

Success doesn’t discriminate

One reason for the community’s unparalleled success is that Dirigo was one of the first schools to embrace girls as athletes and give them a spotlight equal to boys.

Longtime coach Sally Clark built the foundation for the Cougars’ female basketball and field hockey programs. Led by Deb (DiConzo) Mooney, Dirigo won back-to-back Class C hoops titles in 1977 and 1978. Field hockey ruled the state for three consecutive years from 1984 to 1986.

Rebecca Fletcher, who grew up to become a championship-winning point guard and coach at Dirigo and teaches life science at the school, was influenced by both title runs.

“Although I never saw Debbie play, she was a major influence on me growing up through the memories my father (Kip) had of her abilities on the court. He told me she was the only female basketball player at the time with a legit jump shot, something that many males still couldn’t do. I grew up wanting to play like No. 10 on the wall in Defoe Gymnasium,” Fletcher said.


Dirigo’s dominance of the late 1970s and early-to-mid-1980s is a living history.

Unlike many small communities, where students strive to graduate and escape to an urban setting, Dirigo athletes often stay, or come back. Many surnames on the current roster of multi-sport champions — Robinson, Frost, Arsenault, Brown, St. Germain, Whittemore, Conant — represent family traditions two and three generations deep.

Not counting the paper mill in nearby Rumford, Fletcher noted that the schools are Dixfield’s largest employer.

“That makes them the focus,” she said. “The community is also comprised of generations who have remained or have returned to raise their families. Many are blue-collar workers, which ingrains a trademark work ethic in our youth.”

They live and prosper in an era that is often easier to navigate with a snowmobile than a compact car at this time of year. Dirigo, a member of RSU 10, draws students from Dixfield, Canton, Peru and Carthage.

“It’s a tribute to the parents in a small area that’s kind of spread out that they get the kids to all the practice,” Whittemore said. “We have a lot of pride in our sports, in our schools and in our towns.”


Unsung heroes abound

Gavin Kane witnessed that depth of support during his matchless run as a Dirigo basketball coach.

The Cougars’ won the Class C West girls’ championship under his leadership every year from 1995 to 2005, ending six of those seasons with a Gold Ball. Kane also directed the Dirigo boys to a regional title in 2009.

Even though Kane moved on to Spruce Mountain, and now Mt. Blue, his coaching and teaching tree blooms at neighboring Dirigo. Fletcher and field hockey coach Gretchen (Curtis) Errington starred on his early championship clubs.

“The kids in that area are not afraid of hard work. They’re certainly not afraid of making a commitment,” Kane said. “Being a small community, they know each other so well. They enjoy competing together and for each other, but also for the school and the community.”

And where the children lead, the adults follow.


Kane praised Kip Fletcher, who led Dirigo’s peewee basketball program for more than 30 years. He also lauded the athletic boosters and their longtime leader, Barbara Chow, for their role in Dirigo’s prolonged excellence.

“They were always amazing for such a small school and such a rural community. Long after their kids are out of the program, they stay on board, and they’re always there for the kids,” Kane said. “Barbara has continued to organize it well after her own kids graduated and well after her nieces and nephews graduated. Those are the type of people you’re dealing with.”

Take a quick visual survey of the crowd at any basketball game, and you’ll witness the cohesiveness of the Dirigo athletic program.

Wrestling coach Doug Gilbert stands against the wall and surveys the action at one end of the gymnasium. Football coach Jim Hersom cheers from the third row of the bleachers. Palmer wears a headset at the end of the scorer’s table, calling the play-by-play for local radio.

“I think it’s great how coaches from other sports follow all the teams,” Palmer said. “You see that everywhere, probably, but they take it to another level. The kids know that means the coaches care about them beyond what they do for them in their own sport.”

Then there is the behind-the-scenes help, much of it voluntary.


Dirigo alumnus Aaron Perreault is the certified athletic trainer for all RSU 10 schools. Palmer, a Mountain Valley graduate who has led Dirigo to two Class C baseball championships in four years, noted that Perreault’s contributions to the program far exceed taping ankles and applying ice.

“He spends countless hours of his own time taking care of the athletes,” Palmer said. “He definitely does not do it for the paycheck.”

That spirit has been evident at the end of each of Maine’s recent interminable winters.

A photo posted on Facebook one year ago showed Whittemore’s father, Dana Sr., assistant baseball coach Dave Berry and other men from the community attacking Harlow Park with snow removal equipment, so that the team could begin its slate of practices and scrimmages on time.

“You always have people willing to jump right in and do things,” Whittemore said.

Athletes for all seasons


In other communities, jealousy toward successful programs and athletes’ choice to specialize in their No. 1 sport sometimes prevent all teams from being successful across the board.

That hasn’t happened at Dirigo. It isn’t unusual to see a curtain stretched across the gymnasium so that both the wrestling and cheerleading teams can take advantage of the school’s limited space with a simultaneous practice.

And multi-sport performers are the norm. Frost, Kaine Hutchins, Bryce Whittemore and Nick St. Germain head the current list of Dirigo athletes who exchange footwear and equipment at the end of every season. Riley Robinson, already the Cougars’ career scoring leader in basketball as a junior, is starting quarterback and safety in football.

“People at bigger schools say, ’I’m going to specialize in basketball so I can play at the next level.’ You don’t have to do that, and I think Dirigo is a prime example. Kids play two or three sports from the time they’re in third and fourth grade and go on to play in college,” Palmer said. “All the coaches work together. I know at the end of the school year I’ll get together with Mags (Travis Magnusson) and talk about the Legion schedule and their summer basketball schedule. We’ll try to figure it out so the boys can do everything.”

Doing everything the right way, as well. Hutchins was quick to point out that the quest to squeeze all Dirigo’s awards into the gym and adjacent hallway included three sportsmanship banners in 2013-14.

And yes, success breeds success.


“If you look back at some of the team pictures of our championships, you see some little kids in the background that would eventually grow up and be part of their own championship team,” Kane said.

“Kids see the significance placed on athletics and they want to be a part of it,” Fletcher added. “Also, over the years it seems that the Dirigo community is able to consistently produce hard-working kids. Our athletes have been willing to sacrifice, commit and work. With some of our girls’ basketball teams in the past, we knew we weren’t necessarily the better team, but we would face any challenge. There was always a mental toughness.”

Tough enough, and bold enough, to wake up the neighbors when making that oh-so-familiar return as conquering heroes.

Rest easy, residents of Weld Street. Win or lose, Dirigo’s plan is to stay in Bangor until Sunday morning.

“It’s a great feeling,” Whittemore said. “It makes it worth getting to the school at 4:30 in the morning to take a bus to Wells. There’s something special about it. We all know what pays off in the end.”


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