Josh Gormley was nervous, so he wrote down everything he wanted to say.
“Everyone makes mistakes, and those mistakes don’t define who you are,” Gormley wrote. “It’s how you learn from them.”
Gormley, to his immense credit, is learning a lot. Just a few years ago, Gormley was a high school dropout. On Saturday, he scored 25 points for the Waterville Senior High School boys basketball team. Waterville lost, 47-45, to Presque Isle, in the Eastern Class B quarterfinals, and the game marked the end of Gormley’s high school basketball career.
This entire season was a gift, and Gormley cherished it.
“Sports has been the most positive thing that I’ve been involved with throughout my life. You have expectations when you’re part of sports teams. It was good for me to have that. Coming to school every day. Going to practice. Getting good grades,” Gormley said.
“For him, who cares about the playoffs? The big picture for him is June. He’s got a future. He’s a bright kid and he listens and he wants to learn,” said Jason Briggs, Waterville’s boys basketball coach. “This is a game. You have to remind him, with all you’ve been through, this is a game.”
It was the January of Gormley’s sophomore year when he gave up on school. You don’t go to school for a day. Then you skip the next day, and the next. Then you realize, you’re a drop out.
“I didn’t come for a week, then I’d come for a couple of days,” Gormley said. “I was dealing with a lot of problems outside of school, and basically I made some bad choices that resulted in me dropping out.”
Briggs remembers Gormley coming off the bench and playing well, helping the Purple Panthers win at Mt. View on a Friday night.
“And then the next school day, nowhere to be found,” Briggs said..
Briggs didn’t let Gormley disappear. There were phone calls, text messages, visits to Gormley’s home. The talks were not easy for either of them.
“How do you tell a kid, ‘You’ve got to choose different friends,’ ” Briggs said. “You’ve got to remember, the kids that he knows, they don’t go school. The things they’re doing, they’re not things you want any kid to be doing … At some point in time, there’s a crossroads. Which way do you want to go? The conversations went back and forth.”
Other adults stepped up. Rae Folsom, a teacher at Waterville Senior High School. Eric Brown, the father of Gormley’s friend, Max. Gormley needed a support system, and he found it. And he came back to school.
Gormley came back this year, his fifth year of high school, to catch up on the time he lost and earn his diploma. He had to petition the Maine Principals’ Association for an extra year of eligibility. Before Gormley went before the MPA in early November, Briggs told him not to get his hopes up.
“We’re trying to say, ‘Listen you’ve got to come to school, whether you have basketball or not. Your state championship is college, it’s a family someday, it’s kids, it’s giving back to your community,’ ” Briggs said. ” ‘The MPA does not approve this, generally. Prepare yourself that if they say no, you still have to wake up every morning when that alarm clock goes off and maintain good grades.’ “
Gormley went to the MPA, and as he put it, “told my life story.” Then he waited, but not very long. It took the MPA less than five minutes to grant Gormley eligibility. It took longer for Gormley to start to gel with teammates who had played summer ball without him, who were not sure he’d be back.
It’s not a coincidence that as Gormley became comfortable on the court, the Panthers hit their stride. Going into Saturday’s regional quarterfinal loss, Waterville had won 12 games in a row. Gormley finished the regular season averaging 12 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 3.6 assists per game.
Gormley became a team leader.
“Well, everyone wants to be a leader. That’s just hard work. Being the older person, I just want to help the kids that are younger than me,” Gormley said. “When you make a lot of mistakes in your past, you want to make up for it. I feel like that’s my making up for it, by setting a good example.”
There’s a stereotype around kids who drop out. Gormley doesn’t fit the cliché.
“That kid’s never got a detention,” Briggs said. “He’s vocal. We want kids holding each other accountable. He’s not afraid to tell, and it doesn’t matter who it is, this is what you need to do. That’s where I’ve probably been most impressed with his leadership.”
Gormley’s high school basketball career is over, but hopefully, he’s not done playing. He plans to enroll at Southern Maine Community College next fall, where he’ll play basketball. Gormley hopes to major in sports management.
In the notes he wrote to try to ease his nerves before being interviewed for this column, Gormley shared advice given to him by Eric Brown.
“Max’s dad told me an analogy about life that’s really stuck with me,” Gormley wrote. “Life is like a ball of clay you can build, mold and shape to whatever you want, and if you mess up, you can always rebuild. It doesn’t have to stay the way it is. It’s not permanent. You can always start over.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242