NO. 1 HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL ADOPTS 5-CLASS SYSTEM

Portland schools in the North? Greenville and Forest Hills of Jackman in the South? A Class AA?

Even lifelong Mainers might find a study of the high school basketball Heal point standings confusing eight months after administrators made sweeping changes to the sport’s landscape.

Hoping to address competitive balance issues brought on by the state’s shifting population, the Maine Principals’ Association approved the addition of a fifth class by a 67-29 vote of member schools in late April. Before that, Maine had held championships in four enrollment classes in boys basketball since the 1950s and girls basketball since 1975.

The addition of another class brought about other monumental changes, starting with the two regions who sent representatives to compete for the Gold Ball — traditionally known as East and West — being renamed North and South.

The schools with the highest enrollments (825 students and over) were moved to a 16-team Class AA. Enrollment ranges for the four remaining classes — A, B, C and D — were narrowed to, in theory, make tournament fields more balanced.

While the changes were in large part made to benefit the state’s smallest schools, its affects were far-reaching and crossed over into the regular season. Schools and conferences scrambled to schedule different opponents based on classification and/or geographic proximity. That led to conferences such as the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, Western Maine Conference and Southwestern Maine Activities Association to reach agreements that allowed for inter-conference games during the regular season (the Mountain Valley Conference, which consists of Class B and C schools from central and western Maine, decided to remain a closed conference). To encourage more inter-class competition, the MPA later reduced the Heal point differential between classes from five points to two.

Some old rivalries — such as Cony-Gardiner and Lawrence-Winslow — returned to the hardwood, while others went by the wayside. Potential new rivalries were born.

“That’s good for central Maine basketball,” said Lawrence boys coach Jason Pellerin. “That’s what we grew up with, these rivalries.”

When tournament time rolls around, fans who typically enjoy the February feast of high school hoops will have two more tournaments and two more championship games on the menu. The Augusta Civic Center, Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center, the Portland Expo and Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena will be busier than ever during vacation week. Whether the games are more competitive remains to be seen. But there’s no denying one of Maine’s great winter traditions will be changed forever.

NO. 2 OAK HILL FOOTBALL WINS THIRD STRAIGHT CLASS D TITLE

It was a dream season for senior Levi Buteau and the Oak Hill football team.

“I dreamed about it last night,” Buteau said after the Raiders defeated Maine Central Institute 34-21 for the Class D championship. “I dreamed about it every night this year since … whenever we started.

“…What made this group of seniors so special was growing up together our whole lives with rec and middle school and high school (football).”

The Raiders raised the Gold Ball for the third straight season this past fall, joining Orono (1979-81 Class C North) and Morse (1970-72 Class B) as the only schools to win three straight outright state football titles since 1970. For players like Buteau and his fellow seniors, though, this one proved to be the sweetest.

Throughout the season, Oak Hill (11-0) faced plenty of tough challenges, yet each time found a way to win and maintain its unblemished record.

In the Class D South semifinals, it was quarterback Dalton Therrien’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Connor Nilsson on the opening play of the fourth quarter that helped secure a 13-10 over Winthrop/Monmouth.

The next weekend Oak Hill raced out to a 21-0 lead against Lisbon only to watch the rival Greyhounds come within an extra point kick of tying the contest. That point-after try was botched with 5:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, though, and the Raiders held on for a 21-20 win thanks to some tough running from Therrien late.

A two-year starter at quarterback, Therrien was nearly perfect for the Raiders. This past season he threw for 1,540 yards, 18 touchdowns and four interceptions while rushing for 1,049 yards, 18 touchdowns and one fumble lost. He finished his career as a starting quarterback 22-1 and 40-5 overall, starting at defensive back as a sophomore.

Most importantly, even when he had his missteps, he never lost his cool. He threw three interceptions in the first half against MCI but still found a way to lead his team to a win. He finished with 179 yards and four touchdowns rushing to go along with 243 yards and a score through the air.

“He has a diverse skill set,” Oak Hill head coach Stacen Doucette said of Therrien. “He has leadership qualities, selflessness and he’s a playmaker. He always has the ability for a home run hit with the pass or with the run.”

Therrien was named the 2015 Kennebec Journal Football Player of the Year and a semifinalist for the 45th James J. Fitzpatrick Trophy for his efforts. Teammate Connor Elwell is a semifinalist 2015 Frank J. Gaziano Defensive Linemen Awards.

NO. 3 UNIFIED BASKETBALL DEBUTS IN MAINE

After nearly two years of planning, unified basketball made its debut in Maine on Jan. 24, 2015 when Cony hosted Oceanside.

The unified sport — which had been available in New England states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island for several years — partners special education students (athletes) with regular education students (partners) and uses rules slightly different than the traditional version of the sport.

It was clear from the moment the players hit the court on that first night in Augusta that the sport was bound to be a success.

“It’s a great thing that Special Olympics has put together and the MPA came on board,” Cony athletic director and unified basketball coach Paul Vachon said after the game. “I think it’s going to be something that goes on for a long time.”

Those sentiments were not exclusive to Cony, though. Messalonskee, Waterville, Winthrop and Oak Hill were among the local schools that also participated in the sport’s first season.

“We’ve just had a very positive time,” Messalonskee athletic director and unified basketball coach Tommy Hill said after a playoff game against Winthrop. “I think both our athletes and our partners have really come together and it’s been a positive experience for everyone.

“It’s just seeing the faces of the kids when they score the first time and just how excited they are, whether it’s a player on your team or the opposition. For some of these kids when they score it’s the highlight of their day. It’s just priceless.”

The first season ended in fittingly thrilling fashion, as Hampden beat Lisbon in the first-ever championship game, 32-30, with a bucket at the buzzer in overtime at Lewiston High School.

NO. 4 RICHMOND SOFTBALL EXTENDS WIN STREAK TO 52 GAMES

As we enter a new year, Richmond softball’s streak stands at one win for every week in the year.

The 52-game reign in Class D went on a 10-month hiatus while many of the Bobcats dabbled — and dominated — in other sports such as soccer and basketball. In the spring, the team will try to pick up where it left off after graduating just one senior starter, but it will be tough to top 2015.

The Bobcats scored 200 more runs than they gave up while steamrolling through the East-West Conference and Western Maine Class D. Pitcher Meranda Martin followed up a breakout freshman year with a strong sophomore campaign, augmented by freshman Sydney Tilton, who caught Martin when she wasn’t pitching the second game of Saturday doubleheaders to give her batterymate a break.

Martin, Tilton, Kelsea Anair, Kelsie Obi and Kalah Patterson led a deep and deadly lineup that scored nearly 14 runs per game. In the playoffs, Richmond trounced Vinalhaven/New Haven, 14-2, and Searsport, 12-0, to win its sixth consecutive regional title.

The state championship had a few more tense moments early, but the Bobcats eventually overwhelmed the Minutemen.

Stearns jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, but Martin settled in and the offense took care of the rest for a 9-4 title clincher. The Bobcats became just the second Class D team to win three straight titles, joining 1992-1994 Jonesport-Beals. It was the seventh state championship in coach Rick Coughlin’s 29 years coaching the Bobcats.

“They’ve seen what the teams before have accomplished and they want to equal them or better them,” Coughlin said. “The kids come in as freshmen and see this and want to be part of it.”

NO. 5 RICHMOND GIRLS SOCCER GETS ITS PAYBACK

The Richmond Bobcats added more hardware to their trophy case this fall and got a little revenge in the process.

With most of their team returning after falling to a young Ashland team in overtime in the 2014 Class D state championship, the Bobcats figured to be in prime position for a rematch. They got it, and shut down the explosive Hornets, 1-0, after a long bus ride to Presque Isle.

The state title — the 10th of coach Troy Kendrick’s career — featured one of his most complete teams. The defense — with a new goalie in Sydney Tilton — posted 13 shutouts and gave up six goals. The offense — led by Kelsea Anair, Meranda Martin and Autumn Acord — scored 98 goals.

The Bobcats finished 13-1 in the regular season, with their only loss a 3-2 decision at Class C powerhouse Sacopee Valley. They didn’t allow a single goal in the tournament, blanking Searsport and Rangeley to win their sixth straight regional title,

Martin’s goal 10 minutes into the second half was all the Bobcats needed to end Ashland’s 35-game winning streak.

“At the beginning of the season Coach Kendrick harped on us: ‘What’s Ashland doing right now? They’re practicing right now. They’re probably running right now. Most of their players do cross country so we got to get running.'” Martin told the Kennebec Journal after the game. “Most of us sighed but it definitely paid off.”

NO. 6 FORMER CONY TRACK COACH TAYLOR HARMON DIES

It was not all great in 2015, as the state lost a legend in former Cony indoor track and field coach and mentor to countless student-athletes Taylor Harmon in October. He was 70.

“Taylor gave a lot of himself. He is irreplaceable,” Cony athletic director Paul Vachon told the Kennebec Journal’s Bill Stewart shortly after Harmon’s passing. “No one will be able to replace him and all that he did.”

Many of Harmon’s former athletes shared similar sentiments about the coach. Cony graduate Luke Fontaine, who went on to run at the University of Miami, recalled how initially he wanted to be a sprinter but switched to distance running at Harmon’s urging.

“That’s how I started off,” said Fontaine, “but it’s not how I finished. Taylor told me I was a distance runner. He said I should get into distance running, so I did. I’m glad I listened. He had such a huge influence on my life. I’ll never forget Taylor.”

When he wasn’t coaching, Harmon often volunteered to run meets or races across central Maine, and beyond. Mt. Blue coach Kelley Cullenberg fondly remembers interacting with Harmon at these meets.

“I have known him for years and we always had a relationship in which he would tease the heck out of me,” she said. “As soon as I got on site for whatever meet it was, he would be ready with some kind of sarcastic comment that he could get on my case about — with a smile on his face, of course. I got to a point when I dished it right back to him. We had a lot of fun giving each other a hard time.

“At these meets, if you didn’t know him, you could hear him and go ‘Wow, who is that guy?’ He’s going to be missed. He touched the lives of so many people.”

NO. 7 MESSALONSKEE SOFTBALL WINS STATE TITLE IN DRAMATIC FASHION

Memories of Messalonskee’s first state softball title in 10 years will start with the sound of the ball leaving Kristy Prelgovisk’s bat in the first inning of the championship game against Scarborough.

“I heard the noise, and I knew,” Prelgovisk said. “I’ve hit a couple of those before, and you hear that same noise and you know it’s going to go over.”

The solo home run at Cony Family Field was the Eagles’ only hit of the game. It was also the game’s only run, as Kirsten Pelletier’s mastery in the circle (two hits, three walks, 12 strikeouts) meant nothing but zeros in the run column for the Red Storm, who had won the state title in every odd-numbered year since 2007.

“You can load the bases with no outs and she’ll find a way to get three outs for us,” Messalonskee coach Leo Bouchard said of Pelletier. “She becomes more determined, more focused and more aggressive on the mound when there’s a lot of pressure.”

With Pelletier, Prelgovisk and MollyAn Killingbeck leading the way, Messalonskee had high hopes entering the 2015 season — even though Prelgovisk and Killingbeck were the only seniors.

But the Eagles played with poise beyond their years and earned the top seed in Eastern A with a 13-3 mark. A shutout over Mt. Ararat and one-run wins over Edward Little and Bangor in the regional tournament stoked their confidence to pull off the upset over the previously unbeaten Red Storm, who averaged 10.5 runs per game.

NO. 8 MESSALONSKEE HOCKEY WINS BACK-TO-BACK STATE TITLES

New coach, no problem.

Joe Hague, a Messalonskee graduate in his own right, took over as head coach for Mike Latendresse and the Eagles did not miss a beat. Armed with a talented roster led by the high-scoring first line of Jake Dexter, Jared Cunningham and Brandon Nale, the Eagle’s only loss of the season came in an early regular season contest against Class A Bangor.

More often than not, the Eagles had their way with the opposition when they stepped on the ice, yet that could not have been further from the case in the Class B championship against Gorham. Messalonskee found itself in unfamiliar territory in that game and faced a 2-1 deficit heading into the final period.

It was then, though, that the Eagles’ top line was at its best. Dexter, Cunningham and Nale combined to score six goals in the final period and seal Messalonskee’s second consecutive state championship with a resounding 7-2 victory.

“It means a lot. Coming off a 21-0 run (last season) and coming out here and repeating is a great feeling,” Cunningham said after the game. “I was getting a little frustrated but you have to work through some problems and just keep going, keep grinding.

“…It’s an amazing feeling and a great group of guys. We came together as a family, and we just wanted to come out here and we wanted to prove ourselves. Everyone said we were losing a lot and we wouldn’t be as good, but we just came out here and proved everyone wrong.”

No. 9 PETER DEL GALLO SHAKES OFF INJURY, WINS STATE TITLE

Peter Del Gallo was looking at as much as two years away from the mat if he had surgery on a torn left elbow.

Remarkably, the elbow, which he injured at a preseason clinic at Princeton University, healed on its own. And Del Gallo quickly set his sights on a third state wrestling title.

Despite returning to competition just three weeks before the regular season ended, the Gardiner junior accomplished his mission and then some. He wrestled just six matches prior to the Western B regional tournament, yet breezed through the regional and state championships at 126 pounds, even earning Most Outstanding Wrestler honors at the state tournament.

Gardiner coach Matt Hanley said the original plan was for Del Gallo to rest the elbow and call it a season after states. But the 2013 New England champion wanted to compete in the New England qualifier and return to New Englands. He was runner-up at both.

NO. 10 MESSALONSKEE GIRLS LACROSSE WINS EASTERN A TITLE

Girls lacrosse has crowned regional champions every year since 1998, but never had that title traveled further north of Topsham — until this past spring.

When Messalonskee defeated Portland 11-8 at Thomas College in Waterville it became the northern most regional champion in the history of girls lacrosse in Maine.

Almost exclusively, regional and state champions in the sport have come from Portland or the surrounding area. The Brunswick boys and girls have broken through a few times, while the Mt. Ararat girls (2010) and Lewiston boys (2006) have won regional titles. Yet for the most part, school’s like Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, Cheverus, Waynflete, Yarmouth and North Yarmouth Academy have been dominant.

In 2015 the Eagles showed lacrosse can thrive central Maine, though, and they did so in honorable fashion. Among the many ways they remembered their teammate, Cassidy Charette, who died in October of 2014, was by wearing a patch on their jerseys with her initials woven into an infinity symbol.

Though the Eagles ultimately fell short to Marshwood, 13-5, in the Class A championship, they continue to “play like it’s your last,” as coach Ashley Pullen often reminded her team and honored their fallen teammate’s legacy.

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