The drill was hard. Skowhegan Area High School boys basketball coach Mike Nelson designed it to be hard. Looking back 23 years later, Nelson thinks it probably defined his team’s historic 1997-98 season.

“Maybe I didn’t realize it then, but I do now,” Nelson said.

Here’s how it worked. Skowhegan players — the entire team — lined up on the baseline of the basketball court. On the whistle, they ran to the foul line extended, then back to the baseline. Then to halfcourt and back, then the far foul line and back, and finally to the far baseline and back. They had to do this en masse in under 35 seconds. If even one player didn’t finish in under 35 seconds, an invisible opponent gained a point. The game was to 10, and Nelson gave the opponent an 8-0 lead on the scoreboard. Fail to beat the clock twice, and the Skowhegan players would lose.

Nelson watched leaders like senior Tom Nadeau running with their slowest teammates, urging them on time after time. With the score tied 9-9, Nelson watched player Chad Holmes dive across the baseline head first to beat the buzzer and ensure the players earned a 10-9 win. Nelson remembers having tears in his eyes, he was so proud of his squad.

“I didn’t know we’d win a state championship right then, but I knew we were special,” Nelson said.

A few months later, Skowhegan did win that state championship, defeating Cheverus, 57-49, in the Class A state championship game at the Cumberland County Civic Center (now known as Cross Insurance Arena) in Portland. It was Skowhegan’s first, and to-date only, basketball Gold Ball.

“It really comes down to grit. We trusted each other a lot,” Brad Estes, a starter on the team, said. “Every game, we were as prepared as we could be. Honestly, there were probably better athletes that got cut because the coaches kept the guys who would be best for team chemistry.”

Skowhegan went 15-3 in the regular season in a competitive Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference to earn the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Class A tournament. With nine seniors on the roster, the team had plenty of leadership. Just two of those seniors, Nadeau and Eli Soll, were starters. Each of the team members interviewed for this story raved about the strong team chemistry, emphasized by every member of the team accepting his role.

“On and off the court, we were tight knit. Particularly on the court,” Soll said. “There wasn’t anybody that was selfish on that team.”

Added Braden Clement, a junior who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Class A East regional tournament in 1998: “We had some guys who just loved basketball. Eli was a real hooper. Tommy Nadeau was a gym rat… Those seniors really sacrificed. Eli was key. He was a 6-4 guy who was able to go and be tough down low, which was what we needed. He could also step out and handle the ball.”

All five starters went on to play college basketball; Nadeau at the University of Maine at Farmington, Soll at Colby-Sawyer College, Clement at Bowdoin, Estes at Western New England, and Ben Clark at Norwich. The team was a cohesive unit, and Nelson was the perfect coach for their group, Nadeau said.

“He was like a parent to me,” said Nadeau, now in his eighth season as Skowhegan’s boys basketball coach and a science teacher at Skowhegan Area Middle School. “Was he intense? Absolutely. I know everything he did and everything he said was for the betterment of the team.”

“To this day, (Nelson) is someone I really look up to. He was super intense. He loved it. He’d say, coaches can’t want it more than the players. And he wanted it a lot,” said Clark, a junior on the team. Clark is now a social studies teacher at Brunswick High School and the boys basketball junior varsity coach.

Fundamentals were the focus in the Skowhegan program, from the varsity team down to the lowest levels of the youth basketball league.

“It was all fundamentals at an early age. First, second, third grade, all levels doing the same thing. I still only want to coach the way we played,” said Soll, who now serves as an assistant coach on Nadeau’s staff, and works as a behavior analyst. “(Nelson) was amazing. I played in college after, and it was like playing for a rookie coach… We were a pretty confident group, and we were confident because we were prepared.”

Nelson pointed to another event that helped the team come together, the Ice Storm of 1998, which disrupted the middle of the season.

Amid a sea of Skowhegan basketball fans, coach Mike Nelson (bottom center) yells to one of his players during the 1998 Eastern Class A title game against Presque Isle at the Bangor Auditorium.  Kennebec Journal file photo

“That helped us. As a senior-laden team, we were able to handle adversity,” said Nelson, who now teaches at Thornton Academy in Saco.

Skowhegan’s tournament run almost ended with one game. Playing No. 7 Waterville in the regional quarterfinals at the Bangor Auditorium, Skowhegan trailed by one in the closing seconds. Waterville missed a pair of free throws, then pressed Skowhegan as it worked to get off a final shot. Skowhegan got the ball into the hands of Clement.

“They collapsed on me pretty quickly near the foul line, and Jason Ash was wide open,” Clement, now an attorney, said.

Clement hit Ash with a perfect bounce pass, and Ash made the layup with a second to play to give Skowhegan a 52-51 win. Ash scored 15 points off the bench in that game, Nelson said, another testament to the depth the team had and its ability to understand individual roles. Ash provided scoring punch off the bench, as did sixth man Jeb Baker, who earned a spot on the Class A East all-tournament team.

“I could put (Baker) in for a big or a guard, depending on what we needed. He was a perfect sixth man,” Nelson said.

Skowhegan teammates Jason Ashe and Eli Soll embrace as their fans go wild after beating Presque Isle in the 1998 Eastern Class A title at the Bangor Auditorium. Kennebec Journal file photo

With that first-round scare over, Skowhegan beat No. 3 Cony, 63-52. The opponent in the regional final was No. 4 Presque Isle, which upset top-seed Bangor in the semifinals. With a fair taking up the gym at Skowhegan Area High School, Skowhegan had to go to the old gym at Good Will Hinkley to conduct a pregame walk thru practice. Skowhegan held off the Wildcats, 49-38, to advance to the state game.

“We played teams close. We didn’t blow anybody out. We were very disciplined. We didn’t take quick shots. We played defense.” Clark said. “We get into the playoffs, which are all close games, we’ve been in those. As a coach now, you realize  how hard it is to create that culture.”

Going into the state game, Cheverus was the favorite. The Stags were the defending state champs and averaged close to 80 points per game in the Western Maine tournament. Cheverus was led by Angelo Salvaggio, one of the top players in the state.

“We just had a tough game with Presque Isle, who was such a long, lanky, athletic team. Now we kept hearing how athletic Cheverus was,” said Estes, who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky where he oversees 14 Starbucks stores.

The pregame speech in the locker room came from assistant coach Donny Thorndike, in the form of a joke about a leprechaun.

“The pregame speech was a joke to loosen us up. I don’t remember the joke. It probably wasn’t clean,” Clement said.

Nelson started the game with Clement guarding Salvaggio. After Clement picked up two early fouls, Nadeau drew the tough assignment.

“That was my job. That was my role, to defend,” Nadeau said.

Skowhegan’s Braden Clement, center, tries to work the ball inside past the defense of Presque Isle’s George Graves, left,and Jon Constant during the 1998 Eastern Class A title game at the Bangor Auditorium. Kennebec Journal file photo

After falling behind early, Skowhegan went on a 17-0 run in the second quarter to take the lead. In the second half, Skowhegan switched things up defensively, going to a 1-2-2 zone taught to the team by assistant coach and athletic director Jon Christopher over February break.

“We hadn’t played zone all season. Not once,” Nadeau said.

In the fourth quarter, Skowhegan made its free throws down the stretch, including 9 for 11 over the final 2:30 of the game, Clement scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Baker added 17 points in his role as first man off the bench.

Nadeau knows his current players see the banner on the gym wall, and know he and Soll were on that team, but when they talk to the team about that season, the coaches don’t get into specifics about the games.

“We talk about the feeling it brought to the community. What it was like to come home to a gym that was standing room only,” Nadeau said. “Hopefully, at some point they say, I want that.”

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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