Nokomis girls basketball players, from left, Michelle Murray, Lindsey Welch, Laura Pelkey and Nicole Palmer are all smiles after the Warriors won the 2001 Class A state title game. Portland Press Herald file photo

 

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of our 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.

NEWPORT — It’s rare to be undefeated and an underdog. But in 2001, the Nokomis girls basketball team pulled it off. Twice.

The Warriors went into the Class A playoffs that year riding the best season in school history. But to get the hardware to commemorate it, they’d have to go through Cony, the best program in the state, and McAuley, the rising force in the West.

That’s a hard path. And few gave Nokomis much of a shot.

“I think we were under the radar for most of the regular season,” coach Earl Anderson said. “I thought this group was going to be better than a lot of people were thinking we were going to be.”

A lot better, as it turned out. The Warriors took down Cony 55-43 in the Eastern Maine final, then upset McAuley 53-43 in the state final to finish a 22-0 season with the program’s first — and only — Gold Ball.

“Nobody really expected us to win, beating Cony and beating McAuley,” added Danielle Clark, a sophomore center on the team. “I think that was huge.”

The pressure on the Warriors, instead, came from within.

“We had high expectations,” said Lindsey Withee (Welch), a sophomore guard. “Our goal was to make it to the tournament, and we knew that we could make a good run at it with the talent that we had.”

Nokomis was overlooked in part for its inexperience. The Warriors had two seniors in Laura Walsh (Pelkey), a starting guard and forward, and Nicole Palmer, the sixth player. Otherwise, Nokomis leaned on sophomores, from Clark in the middle to guards Michelle Paradis (Murray) and Withee and Sara Lowe at forward.

“Everyone had their role,” Walsh said. “Everyone had something that they did well.”

The focal point was Clark, who averaged 18 points a game and went on to become the University of New Hampshire’s ninth-leading scorer all time. Even as a sophomore, she was ready to carry the offense.

“I had a lot more confidence my sophomore year,” said Clark, who played professionally in Europe after leaving UNH. “I loved going out and competing. … I thrive off that (responsibility), so I was happy to be that person.”

The team also had a vocal leader and versatile player in Walsh, a strong defensive player in Lowe, a good distributor in Withee and, in Paradis, someone with a knack for clutch shots in big spots.

“Michelle’s very easy-going. Nothing really fazes her,” Clark said. “So when she shoots, she could just be shooting in her driveway.”

Nokomis guard Michelle Murray looks to make a move on McAuley defender Tricia Freeman during the 2001 Class A State championship game. Portland Press Herald file photo

The result was a team that spread the floor on offense and was hard to defend, and on defense was good at getting opponents to play the slower pace it preferred.

“I really believed we played the game the right way,” said Anderson, who also got contributions from Gillian Snow, Jessica Merrow and Amy Paradis. “Have great ball movement on every position, and take great shots. All of that requires discipline.”

Still, it wasn’t enough to make the Warriors the popular pick of the pundits. Not with the top-seeded Cony Rams and coach Paul Vachon, winners of five Gold Balls and owners of a 20-0 record themselves, waiting first at the end of the bracket, and then in the Eastern Maine final.

Anderson saw that the key was gumming up the works of Cony’s fast-paced machine.

“Everybody was (saying) ‘Oh, jeez, how are you going to beat Cony?’ ” he said. “Well, the game’s not going to be in the 80s. It’s not going to be in the 70s. It’s not going to be in the 60s. Because if it is, Cony’s going to beat us.”

As the game approached, Nokomis gained confidence it could accomplish that objective.

“I’ll be honest, being a sophomore and thinking ‘Cony this, Cony that,’ they were in the news and they (had) a great coach, great players,” said Withee, who became a state championship-winning coach at Winslow. “But once we realized in prepping for that Eastern Maine game, it was like ‘Hey, we’re playing Cony, these are the two best teams in Eastern Maine right now. We can compete with anyone.’ ”

The Warriors got 26 points from Clark, 11 from Withee and nine from Michelle Paradis, and committed only 11 turnovers. Their rock-solid defense limited Cony to 1-of-14 shooting in the fourth quarter, allowing Nokomis to come back from a 23-17 halftime deficit, take the lead and hold off the Rams from there.

There wasn’t much time to celebrate. Nokomis had 20-1 McAuley, a finalist the year before, and star guard Sarah Marshall up next. The Warriors were prepared for the Lions’ height, however, having practiced against the Nokomis boys team.

They had also become acclimated with the raucous Bangor Auditorium, where their devoted fans would once again follow them and pack the stands.

“This group was going to be confident no matter who (they played),” Anderson said. “They believed and trusted in each other.”

Nokomis got out to a good start and carried a 40-30 lead into the fourth quarter, but the offense stalled down the stretch, and McAuley narrowed the score to 42-41 with 3:33 to go in the fourth.

“We were leaking oil,” Anderson said.

Needing an answer, Withee drove toward the basket, where the McAuley defense collapsed in on her. She kicked the ball back out to Michelle Paradis, who calmly knocked down a three to make it 45-41 with just over three minutes left. Withee set up Lowe on the next possession, and McAuley didn’t get within two points again.

McAuley forward Jessica Norden drives to the basket as Nokomis defender Michelle Murray closes in during the 2001 Class A State championship game. Portland Press Herald file photo

“Michelle, she hardly ever showed emotion,” Anderson said. “But I remember, she pumped her fist into the ground after she made that shot. For her, that’s a lot of emotion.”

“She was always key to hit those big-time threes,” Withee said. “She always thrived in those moments.”

Moments later, all there was left to do was cut down the nets and carry the Gold Ball, one no one thought they would win, back to Newport, where they were surrounded by the community that knew they could.

“We pulled back into town on the bus and all the fire trucks and police officers and all the locals would be hooting and hollering out of their car,” Walsh said. “It’s just crazy. There’s nothing like high school basketball in Maine.”

At Nokomis, the players knew that as well as anyone.

“Our support from our town was awesome,” Clark said. “We felt like we owed it to the people of our town. … We always felt like we had to put on a show.”

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