Maranacook quarterback Garit Laliberte, left, throws a pass in front of Mt. Ararat defender Damien Weed during the eight-man large school championship game earlier this season at the Ricky Gibson Field of Dreams in Readfield. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

High school football in Maine was broken. Not irreparably, but something needed to be done as a counter measure to the growing number of lopsided games, and to keep programs struggling to field a team from dropping football entirely.

The solution was the creation of an 8-man football league modeled after similar formats used in many other states to allow high schools with low football turnout to keep the sport alive and even thrive. In central Maine, Maranacook Community High School joined the new league and had one of its best seasons, going 9-1 and reaching the finals of the large school division.

The development and successful debut season of 8-man high school football is the top central Maine sports story of 2019.

“When I got hired, there was definitely a lot of urgency to go to these clinics (and) to do the research,” said Jordan DeMillo, who took over as Maranacook head coach this season and devoted himself to learning 8-man football and teaching the game to his players. “Not only was I taking on head coaching for the first time and calling both sides of the defense and offense, but I was also taking on this totally new style of play.

“I was definitely not overconfident going into the summer.”

Ten teams took part in this fall’s inaugural 8-man football season, divided into two five team divisions, one for the five largest schools and one for the five smallest. Mt. Ararat High School of Topsham won the debut 8-man state championship, beating Old Orchard Beach in the championship game.

The wide-open style of 8-man football was a hit with teams and fans. The 2019 season will see a larger 8-man league. Dirigo and Mt. Desert Island have committed to playing in the league next season, and other schools are giving the move serious consideration. When the Maine Principals’ Association football committee meets on January 13 to develop the alignment for the upcoming season, the growth of 8-man football will be a major consideration.

 

2. Skowhegan wins Class A field hockey title, four players sign national letters of intent.

Skowhegan senior Emily Reichenbach, facing, celebrates her second half goal against Biddeford with teammate Alexis Michonski (14) during the Class A state championship game Saturday at Messalonskee High School in Oakland. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

After falling to Biddeford in the Class A final last season, the Skowhegan field hockey team came back to fulfill revenge in the fall, beating Biddeford 3-0 to capture the 19th title in program history, all under head coach Paula Doughty.

Skowhegan continues to be the benchmark for programs in the state. Since 1991 — a stretch of 29 years — Skowhegan has played in 25 state title games. Skowhegan also has a streak of 19 consecutive state final appearances. The last time the team was not in the running for a state crown was in 2000, when Sanford topped Messalonskee in the Class A final.

The school also continues to be a pipeline for college talent. Four players signed their national letter of intent in November, with Bhreagh Kennedy receiving a full scholarship to play Division I at the University of Maine. Fellow teammates Emily Reichenbach (Adelphi), Olivia Hatch (Saint Anselm) and Mackenzie McConnell (Saint Anselm) each received partial scholarships and will be playing Division II next fall.

“I’m so proud, especially with (Bhreagh) at the University of Maine,” Doughty said at the signing ceremony. “There’s nothing, I think, more special than going up to Maine and having one of your kids on the state’s team.”

 

3. Winthrop boys basketball wins Class C state title

Winthrop boys basketball coach Todd McArthur embraces Sam Figueroa after the Ramblers won the Class C state championship game Saturday night at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Winthrop boys basketball team had come close year after year. Finally, in March, the Ramblers reached the summit.

Led by center Cam Wood, guard Jared McLaughlin and a deep supporting cast, Winthrop put together a 21-1 season that culminated in a state championship with a 61-49 win over Houlton, the program’s first Gold Ball since 2008 and the first under coach Todd MacArthur.

“Every obstacle that was thrown in front of this team, they found a way to overcome and they found a way to be successful during them,” MacArthur said soon after the game. “And I think that’s why we ended up where we ended up.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was Hall-Dale, which had beaten the Ramblers that season and in the C South final the year before. But Winthrop, led by 20 points and 10 rebounds from Wood and a stifling team defense, had the answers in a 61-41 victory in the regional final.

Winthrop then prevailed down the stretch at the Cross Center to deny the Shiretowners and take the title, giving the program a long-awaited victory.

“I just couldn’t be happier for the kids,” MacArthur said. “They put so much time and effort into it.”

 

4. Ben Ashline doubles up Wiscasset Speedway

Pittston native Ben Ashline climbs out of his car and celebrates after winning the Boss Hogg 150 on Sunday at Wiscasset Speedway in Wiscasset. Kennebec Journal photo by Travis Barrett

Over the last two seasons, Ben Ashline made good sport of his limited appearances at Wiscasset Speedway.

The Pittston native needed only one start at the track in 2018 to win the Coastal 200, a feat he followed up with a repeat performance in the 2019 edition of the Late Model race in late May. Yet, history was still left to be made for Ashline.

When he rallied from a late penalty to win the Boss Hogg 150 for Super Late Models in early September, Ashline became the first driver in the 50-year history of the track to win both of its signature events — putting his personal stamp on the achievement by winning both of them in the same season.

 

5. Madison softball wins second straight Class C title.

Madison catcher Lillian Levesque jumps in to the arms of assistant coach Heath Cowan after defeating Dexter in the Class C championship game Saturday at Brewer High School. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Winning a state championship is hard enough. Going back-to-back is even tougher.

However, the Madison softball team made it seem like child’s play in the spring, going 19-1 and capturing its second consecutive Class C state championship with a 7-1 victory over Dexter back on June 15. Not only have the Bulldogs been dominant, but they have been nearly perfect, posting a 39-1 record over the past two seasons.

The Bulldogs have now won three titles in the past four years, and have appeared in the state final each of those four seasons. The win was the 10th state championship for the program in school history (its earliest coming in 1979). The current run is reminiscent of another dominant time in program history, back in the mid-1990s, when the Bulldogs won four consecutive state crowns from 1994-1997.

Several key members of the Madison roster are expected back in the spring, making the Bulldogs the immediate favorites in Class C once again.

 

6. Paul Vachon retires as Cony athletic director.

Paul Vachon gives a wave in his car by his Augusta home on July 26. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

One of the most recognizable faces in the central Maine sports scene stepped away from the spotlight once again this season.

Paul Vachon, one of the state’s most renowned girls basketball coaches, first made waves when he stepped down as Cony’s coach in 2008, and then did so again after this spring when he resigned as the school’s athletic director, ending a run of 34 years with his alma mater.

Vachon and Cony were synonymous, first when he was leading the Rams to seven state titles with a signature mix of relentless intensity and pressure and disciplined defense. Vachon also brought his teams to four more title games, and finished with a record of 451-50 — a .900 winning percentage.

He then guided all of Cony’s teams as athletic director for 11 years, and oversaw the development of several Rams squads — including football, boys basketball, girls swimming and girls track and field — into championship-caliber teams.

 

7. Cody Laweryson drafted by the Minnesota Twins.

Cody Laweryson delivers a pitch for the Elizabethton Twins during a Rookie Advanced game on Aug. 26 against Greenville in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Laweryson, a Moscow native and Valley graduate, threw 46 innings in the minor leagues this season. Contributed photo by the Elizabethton Twins

Northern Somerset County is not a baseball hotbed. Moscow native Cody Laweryson is the exception.

After a strong junior season as a starting pitcher at the University of Maine, Laweryson, a Valley High School graduate, was selected with the 12th pick of the 14th round by the Minnesota Twins in June’s Major League Baseball draft.

“I’m just relieved,” Laweryson said on the day the Twins selected him. “I was just hoping to be picked at any point.”

Laweryson spent most of his first season of professional baseball pitching for the Elizabethon Twins, Minnesota’s rookie league team, and made one start in Single A Cedar Rapids. Laweryson was 1-1 with a 1.57 earned run average, striking out 63 hitters in 47 innings pitched. On Aug. 26, in his final start of the season, Laweryson struck out 15 and allowed three hits over six innings in a 1-0 win over the Greensville Reds.

Laweryson will report to the Twins minor league facility in Fort Myers, Florida in February, before learning where he’ll begin the regular season.

 

8. Oak Hill football coach Stacen Doucette dies.

Oak Hill head coach Stacen Doucette celebrates the Raiders’ Class D football championship after defeating MCI 34-21 at University of Maine in Orono in November 2015. The state title was the third straight for Oak Hill. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The state’s football scene was shaken early on December 9 when word circulated that Oak Hill football coach Stacen Doucette had died that morning.

The response was immediate, with coaches, players and parents fondly remembering Doucette as a coach and person alike.

As a coach, Doucette was universally respected for his devotion to his program and his ability to get the most out of those who played for him. Doucette’s Raiders won three straight championships from 2013-15, and never missed the playoffs in his eight years at the helm.

Doucette went 51-23 with the Raiders, where he took over after serving as an assistant at Lisbon following a playing career with the Greyhounds.

“He was the epitome of dedication,” Oak Hill athletic director and former Gardiner coach Jim Palmer said. “He expected a lot from players, and they knew that whatever expectations he had for them he was going to do double for them.”

 

9. Forest Hills boys basketball wins Class D state title.

Forest Hills head coach Anthony Amero, center, celebrates with his team after defeating Schenck in the Class D state championship game Saturday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Expectations were high in Jackman for the Forest Hills boys basketball team. The Tigers returned a strong, veteran team and were expected to be among the top Class D teams in the state.

After rolling through the regular season, the Tigers did not disappoint their ardent fans. Forest Hills dominated the competition in the Class D South tournament, then took a 70-65 win over Schenck in the Class D state championship game to earn the team’s third gold ball since 2013.

The Tigers average margin of victory in the regular season was 39.7 points. Forest Hills won nine game by more than 40 points, and in the Class D South regional tournament, against stronger opponents on the bigger Augusta Civic Center court, the Tigers average margin of victory was 36 points.

Schenck was the only opponent to stay within 10 points of Forest Hills all season, and the Wolverines needed a fourth quarter rally to do that, after entering the final quarter down 15 to the Tigers.

Forest Hills graduated three seniors, Jakob Rivas, Brandon Gilboe and Dalton Gregoire, but returned a strong group to try to defend their title and opened the 2019-2020 season with five consecutive wins.

 

10. Travis Benjamin wins 3rd Oxford 250

Travis Benjamin celebrates winning his third Oxford 250 title at Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday. Brewster Burns photo

When Travis Benjamin rolled his red and black No. 7 into victory lane at Oxford Plains Speedway in late August, he joined elite motorsports company.

The Morrill racer won the 46th annual Oxford 250 to become just the fourth driver in the history of the event to win the race three times in his career. A two-time Pro All Stars Series champion, Benjamin joined Dave Dion, Ralph Nason and Mike Rowe as the only drivers to win the Oxford 250 three times in their career.

All three of those drivers are in New England auto racing halls of fame, and Benjamin — just 41 years old — still has plenty of opportunities ahead of him to become the first person in history to win four Oxford 250s.

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