Our staff picks for the top stories of 2018:

1. University of Maine football reaches the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals

Picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason coaches poll, expectations weren’t high for the Maine football team. The Black Bears blew up all the doubts, however, making a run to the national final four in the best season in the history of Maine football.

The Black Bears clinched the CAA title with a 27-26 win over Elon in the regular-season finale. After earning the No. 7 seed and a first round bye in the FCS playoffs, Maine was dominant in a 55-27 win over Jacksonville State in a home game in the second round.

The Black Bears went on the road for the quarterfinals, taking a 23-18 win at Weber State. Maine’s season ended the following week in a 50-19 loss at Eastern Washington. The Black Bears finished with a 10-4 record. Linebacker Sterling Sheffield and cornerback Manny Patterson, two of the leaders of Maine’s Black Hole defense, earned STATS FCS All-America honors.

Days after the season ended, head coach Joe Harasymiak aceepted a job at the University of Minnesota. Offensive coordinator Nick Charlton was promoted to head coach.

2. Amy Vachon’s success at women’s basketball coach at the University of Maine

An Augusta native, Vachon was named interim head coach of the University of Maine women’s basketball team midway through the 2016-17 season. Last season, Vachon coached the Black Bears to an America East Conference title and a trip to the NCAA tournament. Late in the season, the interim tag was removed from Vachon’s title.

Maine went 23-10 last season, including a 13-3 record in America East games. The Black Bears defeated Hartford, 74-65, in the conference championship game, before falling to Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Vachon’s Black Bears began the 2018-19 season well, with a 7-4 record in the first 11 games. The start of the 2018-19 season included a win over the University of North Carolina, and 66-63 loss to nationally-ranked Duke.

3. Gardiner field hockey win state title

Gardiner coach Sharon Gallant was concerned about her team’s slow starts all season long. But she had no complaints about their strong finishes.

The Tigers continually kicked into gear in the second half during the regular season and did the same in the state championship game, scoring twice over the final 30 minutes to defeat York 3-2 for the Class B title. It was the third overall title for the Tigers.

Jazmin Clary scored in the closing moments of the first half to tie the game at one, then Madelin Walker gave them the lead with a penalty stroke with 15 minutes left to play. Sarah Foust iced the game with an insurance goal to make it 3-1.

The Tigers finished at 17-1-0 behind a strong group of seniors that included Walker, Foust, Aimee Adams, Jillian Bisson, Alyssa Gould and Amanda Cameron. The junior class included forwards Haley Brann and Maggie Bell aloing with Clary while sophomore Lindsey Bell was in goal for the state title run.

4. Monmouth girls win title, then dismiss coach

The Monmouth girls basketball team’s year featured dizzying highs, followed by a sudden — and, as of yet, unexplained — jolt.

In March, all was right for the Mustangs. Monmouth defended its Class C state title, outlasting rival and fellow Mountain Valley Conference powerhouse Boothbay in the C South final, then thwarting eventual Miss Maine Basketball winner Kolleen Bouchard and Houlton in the state championship game.

“It was in our mind. It was our No. 1 goal,” said guard Tia Day, a Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist who hit three first-quarter 3-pointers and scored 14 points in the final. “I think winning it back-to-back made it even more special.”

The win became only the first half of the story, however. Coach Scott Wing was dismissed in early November, less than a month before the opening night of the season, and assistants Ray Convery, Dennis Grover and Ed Spencer didn’t return either. Rick Larrabee took Wing’s place at the helm.

The move made headlines across the state basketball scene, but the school and district have either not responded to or declined requests for comment, and past players who have been reached have been silent on the matter as well.

5. Hall-Dale baseball wins Class C title

They were the favorites before the season began, and then as it went through April and May and approached June. But favorites don’t always get the hardware everyone sees coming ahead of time.

The Hall-Dale baseball team, however, was not going to be denied.

The Bulldogs won 19 of 20 games this season, compiling a dream season that ended with the Class C state title, Hall-Dale’s first since 2001.

“It was just a season that I think every coach dreams of having,” coach Bob Sinclair said. “Where everything comes together.”

There was never a doubt Hall-Dale would have the pieces. Every starter was back, and the Bulldogs sported both a balanced lineup led by Austin Stebbins, Akira Warren and Alec Byron and a talented staff headlined by Cole Lockhart and Dean Jackman. Hall-Dale was the Mountain Valley Conference giant, and its players and coaches knew it.

“There was some pressure,” Sinclair said, “but we took that pressure and used it to make us better.”

Hall-Dale won its first 13 games, then beat Winthrop, Bridgeway and Maranacook en route to the state final. Lockhart, a senior captain, handled it from there, driving in a run and pitching a three-hit, complete game in a 2-1 victory.

“It was a feeling of elation, in that what we had set out to do in March all came to full fruition,” Sinclair said. “We had actually accomplished what we set out to (do).”

6. Manch Wheeler dies

The two-way standout for the last of the University of Maine’s undefeated football teams, Wheeler died at the age of 79.

Born in Augusta and raised in Manchester, Wheeler attended Phillips Academy before reaching Maine where he stood out at quarterback as well as on defense and special teams. Wheeler threw rarely in coach Harold Westerman’s Wing-T offense but led the team in rushing in 1960 and was second in scoring. A year later he was named first-team All-Yankee Conference and led the Black Bears in punting and interceptions as well.

The Black Bears went 8-0-1 in 1961 winning the Yankee Conference title at 5-0. He was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.

Wheeler signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League in 1962 and appeared in four games, playing as backup to former All-Pro quarterback Jack Kemp. He later played minor league football in Portland and Hartford.

7. Winthrop field hockey wins Class C crown

After losing in overtime in the Class C state final a year ago, Winthrop coach Jess Merrill and her Ramblers made it their goal to win a title this fall. They accomplished that with a dominating season that ended with a 3-1 victory over Spruce Mountain. The win completed a 17-1 season for the Ramblers who won their first state title since 1989.

Breonna Feeney scored twice for the Ramblers in the final while Gia Francis added a goal. The team lost just two seniors from the previous year and were bolstered by the addition of freshman Maddie Perkins, who led the team in scoring. The rest of the scoring was distributed between a half dozen players and was a product of the team’s smooth passing attack.

The Ramblers were particularly strong at midfield led by Mountain Valley Conference player of the year Moriah Hajduk and senior Kate Perkins. The Ramblers will graduate those two along with Feeney, Nora Conrad, Hanna Caprara, Olivia Simonson, Layne Audet and goalie Aiva Agri.

8. Dunking causes controversy in high school basketball tournament

The high school basketball tournament is the sport’s biggest stage in Maine, and in 2018, one of the most basic basketball plays became a tournament tempest in a teapot when on court officials at the Augusta Civic Center and Cross Insurance Arena in Portland called technicl fouls on players who dunked.

It’s Rule 10, Section 4, Article 3. “A player shall not grasp either basket ring at any time during the game except to prevent injury.”

According to coaches and players throughout the state is, the rule is enforced differently in the regular season than tournament. Under the watchful and critical eye of the Maine Basketball Commission in the tournament, referees are more likely to issue a technical foul on a dunk than in the regular season, those critical of the rule enforcement said.

Peter Webb, the head of the Commission, defended the way the rule was enforced in the playoffs.

“Maine just goes by the rule, and I don’t know if other states do or don’t. It’s not for me to get involved with or to judge the rule. It’s not about me anyway. It’s about the rules that govern the game,” Webb said in a February interview. “We see a lot of dunks going on in the tournament that have been legal. Dunking in and of itself is legal. No rule or official is anti-dunking.”

9. Cindy Blodgett gets inducted into Maine Basketball Hall of Fame

Years after compiling a dominant college career, the accolades keep coming for Cindy Blodgett.

This year saw her earn one of the biggest yet.

Blodgett, a Clinton native, was inducted into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 17-member Class of 2018.

The greatest women’s basketball player to come from the state, Blodgett led a Lawrence team that ruled Class A in the early and mid 1990s, winning state titles each year from 1991-94. She was no less effective on the Division I stage at the University of Maine, leading the Black Bears to the NCAA tournament each year and finishing her career with 3,005 points — 13th all-time among D-I players.

Blodgett continued her basketball career as a professional in the WNBA after being drafted sixth overall in 1998, then transitioned to coaching, eventually taking over the women’s program at Maine in 2007 and holding the position through the 2010-11 season.

10. UMaine Augusta women’s basketball makes national tournament

Star forward Jamie Plummer was gone. There was one senior on the roster. For the UMaine-Augusta women’s basketball team, it was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

Instead, it was a season to remember for the Moose. UMA went 21-4 in the regular season, reached the Yankee Small College Conference final and then made the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division II tournament, its third nationals trip in five years.

“I think it was a surprise that we were as good as we were,” said Caitlin LaFountain, a junior forward on the team. “We weren’t really expecting (it). … We realized pretty quickly that we were going to be a special team.”

LaFountain was the team’s linchpin, averaging 17.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, while sophomore Dominique Lewis averaged 14.3 points and freshman Sidney Moore was third at 12.6.

“The way we moved the ball, we all played together like we had been playing together our whole lives,” LaFountain said. “It was kind of like ‘Wow, we really could do something this year.'”

The Moose beat Southern Maine Community College to reach the YSCC final, where they lost to Central Maine CC. UMA still earned a berth in the USCAA tournament, where it lost to Villa Maria and then Davis.

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