WINTHROP — TJ Caouette last wore a Winthrop High School basketball uniform 24 years ago. In Winthrop, that does not matter. A generation of athletes have come through Winthrop hearing the Caouette stories. They’ve seen the recordings of the game.

The 1996 winner of Mr. Maine Basketball, Caouette is Winthrop’s basketball Paul Bunyan. A larger than life figure, but real.

This came as flattering news to Caouette, who now lives in Fish Hawk, Florida, about 30 miles southeast of Tampa, with his wife Jackie, son Tyler, and daughter, Sam.

“Really? That’s exciting to hear. I didn’t know that,” Caouette said.

Caouette played college basketball at Villanova, where he was a member of two Wildcats teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament. Now, Caouette works for IBM in the cyber security field. Back home in Winthrop, Caouette is still the standard for excellence, athletic and academic.

Winthrop standout TJ Caouette announces his intention to attend Villanova during a Nov. 9, 1995 press conference. Portland Press Herald file photo

“He was a three-sport phenom,” Jevin Smith, a Winthrop senior and key member of the Ramblers back-to-back Class C state champions boys basketball teams over the last two seasons. “At our program, we believe school comes first, and he was all about that.”

Along with dominating on the basketball court, the 6-foot-8 Caouette won a pair of individual golf state titles. He won outdoor track and field championship is discus, shot put, javelin, and triple jump.

Smith has never met Caouette. Neither has Jacob Hickey, a 2017 Winthrop graduate and Mr. Maine Basketball finalist his senior year. Growing up, Hickey heard stories about Caouette all the time. In high school, he went to Dave Poulin, a Winthrop history teacher and the Ramblers boys basketball coach during the Caouette era, for more information. If I’m walking in Caouette’s massive shadow, Hickey thought, I might as well know what makes it so impressive.

“He definitely has an aura around him,” Hickey, now a junior cross country runner at the University of New England, said. “I wanted to learn about him. What made him tick? Here’s a boy from a small town and such a great talent that’s once in a generation.

“I wish I was able to see him. Set tone for myself and Sam LeClerc and Cam Wood,” Hickey said, referencing a pair of other Mr. Basketball candidates from Winthrop.

Making the varsity basketball team as a freshman in the 1992-93 season was a big deal for Caouette. The Ramblers were coming off a Class C state title, and with a talented group of seniors back, poised for another gold ball run. Winthrop went undefeated Caouette’s freshman season, winning a second straight state title.

“Those are the formidable years, right? There’s a family vibe in a small town like Winthrop,” Caouette said. “Those seniors were my role models.Winning the championship was the best feeling.”

When Caouette was a sophomore, he knew he was not going to have a typical high school basketball career. Gyms were packed. Letters from college coaches started coming. When he was a junior, Caouette was invited to the prestigious Nike camp, where he competed with some of the best high school basketball players in the country.

“That kind of put basketball front and center,” Caouette said.

Currently, TJ Caouette works for IBM and lives in Fish Hawk, Florida.  Contributed photo

Caouette’s parents had a second phone line installed in their home to accommodate the surge in calls from college coaches.  Caouette met Dave Poulin, his Winthrop basketball coach, at an Augusta pancake house for breakfast. This is getting real, Caouette said. Poulin advised his star player to make a list of what he was looking for in a college. Poulin could not be reached for this story, but he holds Caouette’s eternal gratitude.

“He did a lot for me. I don’t know how he found time and run his own family,” Caouette said.

Caouette thought about it, and he and his father, Ted, each made a list of five schools Caouette would visit.

When father and son compared lists, they had the same five schools. Villanova, Maryland, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Boston College.

Then-Boston College coach Jim O’Brien was spotted at one of Caouette’s summer league games at an outdoor court in Augusta. Villanova coach Steve Lappas attended Winthrop tournament games at the Augusta Civic Center.

Before Hickey’s sophomore season, Winthrop basketball coach Todd MacArthur showed the team a tape of the 1993 Ramblers. Caouette was just a freshman, not yet as good as he would become, but dominant. Aside from the action on the court, Hickey noticed the crowd in the Augusta Civic Center, the building packed to the rafters with screaming fans.

As a student at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Augusta, Hickey heard stories of junior high opponents who would defend the young Caouette with four players, daring the rest of the Winthrop team loose. Hickey also watched tape of a Winthrop game at Mountain Valley. Again, a packed gym, it was always a packed gym, fans delighting in Caouette vs Falcons star Andy Bedard, who went on to play at Boston College and the University of Maine.

“Two kids going at it from small towns, hard-working towns,” Hickey said. “I remember thinking, if I could be half as good as (Caouette)  I’ll be good… He would just dunk on people like it was nothing. We’ll be saying his name a long time, for years to come.”

Hickey has Caouette’s career points set to memory, 1,980. So close to 2,000. A few more points in a game here, a made free throw or two there. Caouette never gave his career point total a thought. The Ramblers went 70-6 in Caouette’s four seasons., won a gold ball and played in three regional championship games. Those are the numbers that matter, he said.

“No, never crossed my mind. Basketball is a team sport and in my view, measured by wins. I was very fortunate to help lead the Ramblers and couldn’t have done so without my teammates and coaches,” Caouette, who also had 1,050 career rebounds at Winthrop, said. “I was so happy to win. Everything I liked to do, I wanted to be best at.”

At Villanova, Caouette developed into a solid role player off the bench, averaging just under four points per game for his career. In 2018, Caouette attended Villanova’s national championship win over Michigan with Jackie, herself a two-time Big East Conference swimming champion in the backstroke, and Tyler. The family sat a few rows behind the Wildcats bench, among other former Villanova players. Tyler was impressed his dad knew former stars like Tim Thomas, who was a freshman with Caouette on the Wildcats in 1997, before leaving for the NBA.

“I didn’t have a big impact at the high Division I level,” Caouette said. “But I was able to say, see? Dad used to have it, Tyler.”

Caouette planned to come back to Maine this summer to celebrate his induction to the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2020. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in the ceremony being cancelled, but he hopes to attend with the Class of 2020 is honored next year along with the Class of 2021.

Caouette hasn’t been able to pay close attention to the Winthrop basketball team’s fortunes, although he’s proud of them for winning back-to-back state championships the last two seasons. Poulin told him all about MacArthur’s intense dedication to defense, and Caouette loves it.

“They’re kicking ass now, which is nice to see,” he said.

Caouette’s picture hangs in Winthrop High School, along with his retired jersey. Hickey remembered drawing frequent inspiration from that display.

“He was an influence on Maine basketball as well. That connection is still quite valuable to us as a town, and us as a state,” Hickey said.

It’s been 24 years since Caouette played basketball for Winthrop, 20 since he played for Villanova. In his hometown, Caouette’s influence shows no sign of waning.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.