The “Looking Back” series is easily my favorite Sun Journal project that I didn’t have to be involved in.

Those of you who have a passing familiarity with my personal philosophy get the joke. I love long-term projects, long as they don’t interfere with covering the current local athletes whose families read the paper in the here-and-now. And I usually love them most when they’re finished, so I can sit back and toast the fruits of a job well done.

My talented brethren in the business have done an amazing job capturing those snapshots of the past while keeping the train moving forward. What I enjoy most about the stories, more than a glimpse into what yesterday’s stars are doing now, is getting transported back to the glory days.

Because yes, it’s a sign of advancing age, but I was there covering the entire group when they (we?) were merely fresh-faced, wide-eyed kids with an entire life ahead of us. And while it’s easy to get overly consumed with romanticizing the past, I’m here to tell you those good ol’ days were pretty decent.

So many of those story subjects left a permanent impression back in the day. It’s impossible to read Tony Blasi’s recent account of 1990s Mt. Blue quarterback Dustin Ireland without walking away impressed with all he’s accomplished. Then again, having covered almost all the Cougars’ games his junior and senior seasons, I fully expected Ireland to win bigger things in life than the Fitzpatrick Trophy.

I was at Drummond Field in Waterville the Saturday afternoon when Ireland’s coach, Gary Parlin, junked everything the program had done offensively for decades and unveiled the “Cougar Gun.”

Maine high school football, with the brief exception of Bobby Wilder’s run at Madison roughly a decade earlier, was a stodgy, old coot at the time. The object of the game was to line up your six biggest guys and run dives, traps and sweeps behind them until the opponent could stop it.

Ahead of the spread or the pistol, before the advent of 7-on-7 summer leagues, Parlin was a mad scientist watching old USFL tapes of Jim Kelly and wondering what kind of mischief he could cause. The answer was plenty, but it was because he had the perfect storm at the perfect time. The smartest kid in the school just happened to be its best athlete.

And the best kid. I remember catching Ireland by the snack shack at Caldwell Field after one of those must-see wins. He’d thrown for 300 yards or something silly by Pine Tree Conference standards, but there he was, pulling a wrinkled cheat sheet on which he’d scribbled the names of his linemen from one of his socks. Ireland knew he’d probably be speaking to me later than night, and darned if we were going to embarrass him with a 72-point headline and more glowing prose without throwing a T-bone to the guys who truly made it happen.

That’s related to perhaps the most rewarding and unsurprising part of this series: That our most decorated, blue-chip, stud athletes became great citizens and family men. I think of the three pitchers — Jeremy Shorey, Bryan Lambert and Tip Fairchild — who flirted with the big time as professionals without big-timing anybody.

They also handled a level of responsibility and maturity at 18 that escaped me in my mid-to-late-20s. I remember being assigned to track down Shorey when it became apparent he’d probably be plucked the first night of the MLB amateur draft. My first effort to lay the groundwork was a call to a great friend and Shorey’s coach and guardian at the time, Jeff Ramich.

Ram’s reply was, “Well, he’s gone to the movies, but he has his beeper and I know he’ll call you when he gets out.” Shoot, I had a wife and a toddler at the time and had yet to acquire a pager or a cell phone. That exchange made me feel about three inches tall the next time I stopped somewhere in East Overshoe to make a collect call home after a game.

All three of those guys were, and are, high-character dudes who simply adored competition. Those qualities were never clearer than when Shorey, his baseball career topped out, returned to Husson University and served essentially as a blocking tight end for a Division III football program in its infancy. Oh, yes: It’s well worth pointing out that Shorey, Lambert and Fairchild all played three sports yet still advanced farther in baseball than 99.999 percent of the other native Mainers who tried it.

Heather Ernest was probably the best female basketball player from the tri-county region in my lifetime. I’ll absolutely never forget the first of her back-to-back state titles at Mt. Blue. Even though the Cougars were playing in the familiar confines of the old Bangor Auditorium, most observers gave them a snowball’s chance in March on that leaking roof against undefeated, unchallenged Lewiston.

It’s impossible to adequately explain how good and how much of a favorite the Blue Devils were. They were one of the few teams in my experience in which all five starters were future college players, and most of them became stars at that level. The outcome was a blowout, all right, but in the other direction. On the biggest stage of her life to that point, Ernest flashed the brilliance that made her a star at the University of Maine and took her to the pros in Europe.

I’m blessed with similar memories of Greg Moore, Katie Whittier, Dave Dion and all the other athletes on the diverse list that has made this series so stellar.

Hopefully my old comrades will continue digging through the archives in the months and years to come. Simply seeing these names in print again, all these years later, is the most delightful word association game imaginable.

— Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.

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