Editor’s note: This is the third installment of our new series, “Remember When,” in which we revisit some of the memorable games, events, streaks and runs in high school spring sports we’ve covered over the last few decades.

 

FARMINGDALE — Joel Lockwood remembers one of the first things coach Tim Johnson told the 2001 Hall-Dale baseball team. And he remembers the chord it struck for him and his teammates.

“He came in the locker room, it might have been one of the first practices, and said ‘I’m here to do one thing, and that’s win a state championship,’ ” said Lockwood, a former pitcher for the Bulldogs. “The idea of Hall-Dale winning a championship, it seemed maybe a little far-fetched.

“But we just went with it. He was confident.”

Hall-Dale baserunner Justin Lawrence is congratulated at home during a June 13, 2001 game against Mt. Abram in Standish. Kennebec Journal file photo by Andy Molloy

And prescient, as well. The Bulldogs that year did everything Johnson and his players could have hoped for and more, completing an undefeated season with the Class C championship, Hall-Dale’s first baseball crown since 1973.

“It doesn’t happen to very many people,” catcher Nate Duncklee said. “It was one of a kind. I don’t think any of us expected that going into the season.”

It didn’t take long, however, for people to realize just how good a team there was in Farmingdale that spring. Hall-Dale finished 17-0, and outscored opponents 176-46.

“I think we did everything,” center fielder Justin Lawrence said. “We scored a lot of runs, but our defense … I think that was our biggest key. We were solid from everywhere.”

It didn’t start that way. Instability hindered Hall-Dale in the years leading up to 2001, and the core of players that had been on teams together growing up had splintered. Lawrence ran track in 2000. Lockwood, a senior in 2001, didn’t play as a freshman and sophomore. James Graham, who became the Mountain Valley Conference Player of the Year in 2001, didn’t play his sophomore year.

But Johnson — who declined comment for this story — was back in the dugout in 2001 after a previous stint at Hall-Dale. He knew about that group. And he sought help with recruiting.

“I got a call before the season,” Graham said. “He said ‘Listen, I want to coach you guys, but I want to make sure that core group is all going to come back out and play.’ That’s when we started talking to each other, saying ‘Hey, are you going to play? I’m playing. Let’s get this group together, go out and see what we can do.’ ”

As the team soon found out, Johnson meant business. And he didn’t play favorites. When Graham, the team’s best player, showed up late for the first tryout of the season, Johnson sent him home.

“He said ‘If you want to play ball, come back tomorrow and you can play,’ ” Graham said.

“(Johnson) set that standard from day one,” Duncklee added. “You’ve got a bunch of young guys, and we’re like ‘Wait, what? That’s how we’re going to do this?’ ”

The message didn’t waver from there. Johnson, with help from assistant coach Bruce Kingdon, preached fundamentals and discipline on the field. Johnson wanted a team that didn’t make mistakes, so he made sure the Bulldogs acted accordingly.

The final statistics from the 2001 Hall-Dale baseball team, which won the Class C state title. Contributed photo

“There were high expectations. He saw the potential in us well before we did,” second baseman Steve Vellani said. “When I think back on that team, (I think of) our discipline and our work ethic. He expected perfection from us, and that’s just about what he got.”

“What we needed was someone like Johnson at the top, who wasn’t going to deal with any BS,” Graham said. “Tim Johnson sticks out as the best coach I’ve ever had. He’s the type of guy, you either love him or hate him. I loved him.”

Soon it became apparent why Johnson was so eager to return. The Bulldogs were balanced, with speed at the top of the lineup in Vellani and Lawrence and big bats in the middle in Graham, Josh Vachon, Duncklee and Mike Sproul.

“We were just going to keep putting the pressure on,” Duncklee said. “We were happy 10-run ruling teams. There was no foot off the gas.”

The Bulldogs used only two starting pitchers, Lockwood and John Vorhis. That’s all they needed.

“Those guys were awesome,” Lawrence said. “John probably threw harder, but Joel … it just felt really heavy when he threw. … I definitely don’t think he threw as hard as John, but he had some weird movement.”

Eventually, however, the Bulldogs were tested. They found themselves held in check in the state championship by Mattanawcook’s John Crocker, and down 4-3 going into the seventh.

It was a rare moment of adversity for the Bulldogs. But they knew how to handle it.

“We expected to perform,” Graham said. “We never got down on ourselves. We were just like ‘OK, boys, it’s time to go now. We can’t mess around anymore.’ We never knew who was going to be the one to spark the rally.”

It was Lawrence, who worked a long at-bat before getting hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, prompting the Lynx’s coach to pull Crocker. One out later, Graham singled and stole second, putting runners at second and third for Duncklee, a sophomore who had already picked up two hits and caught six innings in blistering heat.

“Nate was probably the hardest-working player on the team,” Lawrence said.

Now he got to play the hero.

“I was feeling it, and definitely jacked up about the situation,” Duncklee said. “And that’s a nice one. Less than two outs, and guys are at second and third? Worst-case scenario, you put the ball in play and still get the tying run in.”

Duncklee did better than that, lining a fastball to right-center field for a hit that scored Lawrence and Graham and made it 5-4.

“I remember the adrenaline pumping,” Duncklee said. “The place was going nuts, and that was the moment I was like ‘Oh my God, that just happened.’ ”

Members of the 2001 Hall-Dale baseball team react after a 2001 game. Contributed photo

Sproul followed with an RBI single of his own, making it 6-4 and setting the stage in the bottom half for Graham, who brought a high-80s fastball as the closer for the Bulldogs.

“The one and only James Graham,” Vellani said. “You 100 percent knew he was going to close it.”

Graham looked vulnerable at first, walking the first two batters, but dialed it in from there, fanning the next three batters to finish off the championship.

“That was the best way I could have written the finish on that one,” Graham said. “I was giving it everything I had. … That was one of the greatest times in my life, I would say.”

Ditto for the rest of the Bulldogs, who raced toward the mound in celebration after the final out, and who then rejoiced with the community that had made the trip to Bangor.

For many, it was a feeling of vindication, and a reward for making the decision to come back to the game.

“There was relief in doing that, and just a lot of reflection,” Lockwood said. “Just being really thankful that I did come back my junior year, and shook off the dust from not playing a few years.”

Not a bad ending for a season that started as a reunion.

“When I struck that last guy out and everyone came running out to the mound, I was like ‘Holy (expletive), we did it,’ ” Graham said. “This is what we set our goal to do, and we worked our butts off to get it done.”

 

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