Editor’s note: This is the 18th 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.

A dozen years later, Nick Maschino still enjoys giving his friend Kyle Stilphen a good-natured hard time about hitting the most famous, most important home run in Gardiner Area High School baseball history.

“He really just needed to hit a fly ball, but he had to go Mr. Big Shot and hit it out,” Maschino said of the grand slam Stilphen hit in the bottom of the fifth inning to lift the Tigers to a 13-0 win over Old Town in the Class B East regional championship.

Stilphen’s grand slam was a no-doubt blast that landed well beyond the left field wall at Bangor’s Mansfield Stadium. Bob Beatham, the longtime public address announcer at Mansfield, said he can recall just one high school home run that equaled or maybe surpassed Stilphen’s in 25 years.

A few days after beating Old Town, Gardiner knocked off Cape Elizabeth, 10-0, a third straight playoff game decided in five innings via the 10-run rule. The state championship was Gardiner’s first baseball title since 1947.

“We had a pretty fun group of guys. We knew we had a pretty good chance to contend for the state title,” said Stilphen, who won the Dr. John Winkin Award as the state’s top high school baseball player that season. “We couldn’t make a mistake, that’s what it felt like.”

After years in Class A, Gardiner dropped to Class B prior to the 2008 season because of a declining enrollment. Coach Jim Palmer had a team he expected to contend for a title no matter the class in which it competed. As the Tigers began the preseason, Palmer stressed that their new conference would not be any easier than the one they left.

“I remember talking to the guys and saying ‘B is not going to be a piece of cake,'” said Palmer, now the athletic director at Oak Hill High School. “That whole group of guys was just baseball players. If we weren’t practicing, they were playing Wiffle ball together, just competing.”

The groundwork for a successful season in the spring 2008 was laid the previous summer, when many of the Tigers played American Legion baseball together under coach Pete Dennis, who also was an assistant coach under Palmer with the high school team.

“(Dennis) let us be ourselves and have fun playing,” Stilphen said.

Many of the team members had played on Gardiner’s football team, which won the Class B state title the previous November. That experience was an asset entering a baseball season with high expectations. When the team felt like it was pressing a little early in the 2008 high school season, Palmer called a team meeting, and his message was simple. Have fun.

“We tried to relax a little more. I was intense as a young coach,” Palmer said.

Gardiner pitcher Kyle Stilphen delivers a pitch during a 2008 game against Waterville in Gardiner. Andy Mollo/Kennebec Journal file photo

The Tigers finished the regular season 13-3, earning to No. 2 seed in the East. The team’s strength was a lineup that had no easy outs from top to bottom, Maschino said.

“We never thought we were going to lose. We were so talented, one through nine. We were a great offensive team, there’s no denying it,” said Maschino, who was the team’s first baseman.

Gardiner bear Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln 7-4 in the regional quarterfinals to open the playoffs, and did not allow a run the rest of the season. A 10-0 5-inning win over Ellsworth set up the regional final against Old Town.

With Gardiner ahead 9-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning and one run from ending the game, Old Town walked Forest Chadwick to load the bases and set up a force out at any base. In the on-deck circle, Stilphen saw the walk as a challenge.

“I felt disrespected,” Stilphen said. “That little extra motivation, you use it.”

Stilphen was looking for a pitch to drive, and needless to say, he got it.

“I don’t think it’s come down yet,” Palmer joked. “For a while, I lost it in the lights, but I knew when he hit it, it was gone. Every time Kyle came up, you kind of expected something like that.”

No game all season encapsulated the Tigers’ offensive depth like that win over Old Town. The six through nine hitters in the lineup — Maschino, Donnie Cray, Chris Howe and Mike LaVallee — went 7 for 11 that game, scoring 10 of Gardiner’s 13 runs and driving in three.

“That’s what the best part of that team was. You never knew who was going to have a big game,” said Maschino, who now works as a delivery driver for Pepsi and lives in West Gardiner.

Gardiner didn’t need to rely solely on offense to win. The Tigers had a deep pitching staff. Chadwick allowed one hit to go along with nine strikeouts and just two walks in the Old Town game. After allowing a two-out single in the first inning, Chadwick retired 13 of the next 15 hitters for the win. LaVallee, the winning pitcher in the state game against Cape Elizabeth, gave the Tigers another strong arm.

The pitching depth allowed Palmer to use Stilphen, who went on to play two seasons at the University of Maine, as a closer, keeping him primarily at shortstop.

“We were better with (Stilphen) at short,” Palmer said. “It was like having another coach on the field. Other guys felt like they had to live up to that.”

In the state final, again at Mansfield Stadium, Gardiner scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning and cruised from there. LaVallee was strong on the mound, allowing two hits with four walks and four strikeouts for the five-inning shutout.

“Mike was throwing a gem. He was fresh. We had a lot of confidence with him on the mound,” Palmer said.

As he had in the regional final a few days earlier, Stilphen ended the state game with a big hit. His two-run single in the bottom of the fifth was Stilphen’s third hit of the game, and his third and fourth runs batted in.

“Baseball is such a momentum game. Once you’re on, it’s really all you can think of,” said Stilphen, who now works as a conductor for St. Lawrence-Atlantic Railroad and also runs his farm in Dresden with his wife, Morgan.

Maschino remembers breaking his finger sliding into third base early in the state game. He stayed in the game.

“Nobody was nervous. We just knew it would be a big game,” Maschino said. “What I really remember about that season is the friendship. How tight-bonded we were.”

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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