Our staff picks for the top stories of 2018:

1. Colby College hockey makes Frozen Four

For the first time in the 95-year history of the program, the Colby College men’s hockey team advanced to the NCAA Division III national semifinals in 2018.

The Mules’ run to the Frozen Four in Lake Placid, New York was marked with other firsts, too, for a program which began competition in the winter of 1922-23. The team won its first New England Small College Athletic Conference championship by beating Trinity College in the title game and earned its first-ever NCAA tournament game victory with a win at theUniversity of New England in the first round.

Led by senior goaltender Sean Lawrence and national Division III coach of the year Blaise MacDonald, Colby earned the trip to the NCAA semifinals with a win at SUNY-Geneseo in the quarterfinals courtesy of a Justin Grillo goal with 1.6 seconds remaining in regulation. It capped a nine-game unbeaten run for Colby (7-0-2) to reach the Frozen Four.

The Mules finished the season ranked sixth nationally, their highest season-ending ranking ever.

Lawrence finished second in the nation in save percentage (.940) during a season which he went 16-8-2 with a 2.09 goals against average. He was twice selected as the NESCAC player of the week.

MacDonald earned his 300th career coaching victory during the run to the Frozen Four, part of his sixth full season behind the Colby bench.

Colby’s historic season ended in a 4-3 loss at the hands of eventual national champion St. Norbert College of Wisconsin in Lake Placid.

2. Nokomis wins Class C football state title

The Nokomis Regional High School football team showed promise in 2017, wining six games under new head coach Jake Rogers and reaching the playoffs for the first tine in program history. In 2018, the Warriors made sure that promise was fufilled with a 13-12 win over Fryeburg Academy in the Class C state chapionship game at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.

Nokomis went 4-4 in the regular season, playing a tough schedule that included games against six playoff teams, including the top seeds in the North and South. In the playoffs, the Warriors used a dominant defense to fight through the regional playoffs. After a 38-6 win over No. 5 Medomak Valley, Nokomis upset top-seed and two-time defending state champ Maine Central Institute, 13-0, in the regional semifinals.

Nokomis continued its defensive resurgence in the regional finals with a 13-6 win over No. 2 Hermon. The Hawks were the highest scoring team in the Big 11 Conference in the regular season, averaging just over 35 points per game.

The state championship game against Fryeburg turned into a defensive battle. With the Raiders holding a 12-7 lead late in the fourth quarter, Tyler Pelletier’s 68-yard punt return for a touchdown put the Warriors ahead for good.

The state championship capped the Nokomis football turnaround from a program that went winless in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016.

3. 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.

4. Winslow girls basketball wins Class B state championship

They weren’t a juggernaut. Far from it.

But in the Class B girls basketball tournament, the Black Raiders of Winslow High School played like one. They faced one higher-seeded team after another and kept finding ways to advance, until the last one had been toppled and there was nothing else to do but celebrate on the Cross Insurance Center floor after winning their first state title since 2005.

“I knew that this team was a great team,” senior Haley Ward said after the last victory, a 43-29 decision over Lake Region. “We work hard every single day and we deserve this.”

The Black Raiders were seeded a relatively pedestrian sixth in the B North tournament, but carved a swath of upsets through the field in Bangor. North No. 3 MDI went down, as did No. 2 John Bapst. No. 5 Presque Isle was next, giving Winslow the regional title and setting up a showdown with Lake Region, which had upset its own share of foes on the south side.

The Lakers’ ride, however, had reached its end. Winslow took the lead for good in the first quarter, then employed shutdown defense to confound Lake Region standouts Chandler True and Lauren Jakobs. Offensively, the Black Raiders got contributions from everyone, both in the starting lineup and off the bench.

An all-around effort led to a fourth-quarter coronation for a championship team few could have pegged before the tournament began.

“The whole team worked so hard,” junior Weslee Littlefield said afterward. “We all got into it. This is just an amazing feeling right now.”

5. Cindy Blodgett 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.

6. 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.”

7. For the third time in five years, the Madison softball team ended its season as the Class C state champion

The Bulldogs beat Narraguagus 7-3 in the title game at St. Joseph’s College in June, capping a perfect 20-0 season which ended with another piece of hardware for the school’s trophy case. Sophomore pitcher Lauria LeBlanc pitched a two-hitter with 14 strikeouts against Narraguagus and didn’t allow a run after the first inning. Her senior sister, Sydney LeBlanc, clubbed a three-run double in the second inning to give the Bulldogs the lead for good.

For head coach Chris LeBlanc, the victory in the state championship game marked the 100th win of his coaching career.

8. Colby, Thomas and UMaine-Farmington soccer teams make NCAA tournament

It was an excellent fall on the pitch for the area colleges.

The Colby and Thomas men’s soccer teams and UMaine-Farmington women’s soccer teams all reached the national stage by earning trips to the NCAA tournament. Colby won the New England Small Colleges Athletic Conference title, while Thomas and UMF took home North Atlantic Conference championships.

Colby’s berth came automatically after the Mules overcame their status as an eighth seed to win their first conference championship. Colby beat Tufts in penalty kicks, Amherst and then Williams in penalties, 4-3, to take the title.

Colby reached the NCAAs for the first time since 1963, and lost to Montclair State in the first round in penalty kicks.

Thomas beat Husson in the NAC semifinals, then topped SUNY Canton 1-0 for the conference title, the program’s fifth. The Terriers fell to Connecticut College 4-0 in their first NCAA tournament game.

UMF beat Northern Vermont-Johnson and Maine-Maritime before upending Thomas 3-1 in the final. Only 5-12 entering the postseason after starting 0-7 and 1-9, the Beavers rallied to earn their second NAC title. Their run came to an end with a 4-1 loss to Middlebury in their first game in the NCAAs.

9. Bobby Wilder inducted into Maine Sports Hall of Fame

In the 1980s, Bobby Wilder made his mark first as a standout quarterback at Madison Area Memorial High School, then at the University of Maine. In recent years, Wilder built the Old Dominion University football team into a Conference USA contender.

In June, Wilder was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.

In 10 seasons at Old Dominion, Wilder has a 76-45 record, and coached the Monarchs to victory in the 2016 Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl.

Wilder was joined in the Maine Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2018 by Jason Bartlett (harness racing), Dana Bullen (skiing), Reagan Carey (ice hockey), Patrick Dempsey (philanthropist), Dewey DeWitt (broadcaster), Tammy Jacques (cycling), Dick Meader (basketball), Anita Murphy (tennis), Carl Nelson (athletic trainer), LeRoy Patterson (football), and Kristen Kenoyer Woodland (gymnastics).

10. 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.

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