NORTH BERWICK — It happens to John Suttie every so often. He’ll be standing in line at a store, or simply walking down a street, and someone will stop him.

“Hey, weren’t you the coach of that Noble football team that won it all in 1997?”

Suttie, who once shied away from such recognition, will smile and nod. Then they will talk. And talk. And talk.

“I’m comfortable with it now,” said Suttie, now the RSU 23 superintendent and Old Orchard Beach High principal. “I’ve had some great experiences in my life but how could anything ever top that 1997 team? Not to diminish the other experiences but that was really amazing for that time.”

Twenty years have passed since the Knights stunned Maine’s football universe by winning the Class A championship. Noble defeated perennial powerhouses Biddeford and South Portland in the regional playoffs. The 10-7 overtime win over the two-time defending state champion Red Riots in the Western Class A title game was as memorable for its setting – an icy field surrounded by 3-foot high snow banks on a Monday evening – as for its outcome. A week later, the Knights defeated Gardiner 35-7 in the state title game.

They’ll always be partners in a shared adventure that ended in a football state championship for Noble in 1997. Among those gathering 20 years later at the Noble High football field are, back row, left to right: Randy Ouellette, Jason Sullivan, Josh Gould and Craig Agreste. Front row, left to right, are John Suttie, Jeremy Chandler, Tim Fleck and Jon Hall. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

“For this area it was incredible,” said Randy Ouellette, the quarterback of that team, now 37 and living in Lebanon with a son, Blake, a sophomore at Noble. “It was a storybook, something that movies are written about.”

“A special time,” added Zack Poore, a two-way end who now lives in Arizona. “My wife is always kidding me about reflecting on the glory days of Noble football. But that team was unique. A small-town school that took it to the big-city schools.”

The 1997 championship season was remarkable given Noble’s relative lack of football success before and afterward.

The school that serves the communities of North Berwick, Berwick and Lebanon opened in 1968. In sports, it’s best known for wrestling (13 state championships) and gymnastics (eight), though gymnastics is no longer a Maine Principals’ Association sport.

Noble did win Class D football championships in 1968 and 1970, but the school endured a losing streak that neared 30 games in the late 1980s. The Knights joined Class A in 1995, posting a 1-7 record that year.

Since its championship season, Noble never has made it back to a regional final, losing the next year to South Portland in the semifinals. Noble has won just 15 games over the past 10 seasons and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2006.

The 1997 team, understandably, brought immense pride to not only the program, but the communities the high school serves.

“It did a lot for the community,” said Jon Hall, a team captain who won the Gerry Raymond Award as the state’s top lineman and is now a social studies teacher at Noble Middle School. “We have three very different towns and that year, we really became one community. And I think it really was about football.”

Thousands of fans would fill the stands at old Kaplan Field on a Friday night, their throats hoarse after screaming as the team walked down the hill from the locker room to the field, the John Mellencamp song “Small Town” blaring over the loudspeakers.

The state championship football trophy from 1997 won by Noble High School, photographed at the Noble High School football stadium in North Berwick on Tuesday.

“I still get goosebumps when I hear that song,” said Jeremy Chandler, a junior flanker for the Knights, now 37 and living in Berwick.

Get those players and coaches together and it won’t take long for the old stories to begin – the coaches talking strategies, the players talking about how the coaches motivated them. They hug, talk about families and exchange phone numbers, promising to get together more often.

“We’ve raised families two, three miles apart and even though we don’t see each other much, when we get together it’s just like it was back on the field,” said Ouellette. “Nothing changes. That’s when you know you’ve got a true friendship.”

“It was a special group of kids,” said Paul Bickford, an assistant coach on that team and now the assistant principal at Oxford Hills High. “I’ve been in education since I started there and that’s the group of kids I still keep in touch with. You still see that spark when we get together. That was special. And the more I look back at it, the more special I realize it was.”

‘WE WERE A FAMILY … A BROTHERHOOD’

Noble’s championship, which ended a string of seven consecutive Class A championships won by Biddeford or South Portland, had its origins a year earlier, following a loss to Marshwood in the final game that kept the Knights from making the playoffs.

After the game, Hall, the captain, walked into the coaches’ room – while they were sitting there – and taped a piece of paper into Suttie’s locker, then walked away.

“John goes over to it, takes the paper out,” said Jason Sullivan, then the offensive coordinator, now the assistant principal at Kennebunk High. “And it says, ‘State champs, 1997.’ ”

Hall said he simply believed it could happen. But the story isn’t that simple.

The Knights’ coaching staff saw talent, led by running back and linebacker Larry Hartford, who would rush for over 1,000 yards and score 16 touchdowns. But no one else believed in this team.

“The Press Herald didn’t even pick us to make the playoffs,” said Poore. “I’ll never forget that.”

The coaching staff averaged 26 years old, with several assistants just out of college and living together. They had no children and spent their free time together, breaking down film and coming up with new strategies or ways to motivate the players. They also listened to the players, who soaked up everything they said.

Sullivan was a science teacher at Noble that year. Players would pop into his class and say, “Coach, we were watching film last night and noticed this. Do you think we could try it?”

Even so, they admitted that sometimes they improvised.

“We were winging it,” said Scott Descoteaux, the line coach on that team, a future Biddeford High head coach and now the principal at Biddeford Middle School. “But the one thing we weren’t winging was that we cared about those kids and those kids cared about us.”

It turned out all these players and coaches needed was each other.

“It was the perfect match of men to take some boys and make them state champions,” said Poore.

“They talked to us like we needed to be talked to,” said Ouellette. “They told us if we needed to step it up. The camaraderie was awesome, it was like having your big brother as a coach.”

It was more than that.

“We were a family, we were a brotherhood,” said Poore. “All those coaches, they prepared us for life, they prepared me for the Marines (which he joined eight days after graduation). They gave me memories I will never forget.”

Corey Sheckler, a two-way lineman, is now an assistant operations superintendent at the 157th Security Forces Squadron at Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire. He called that team “a benchmark in my life.”

Currently stationed in the Middle East, Sheckler said in a Facebook message that everything the coaches taught the players helped prepare him for what he’s doing today.

“That was the greatest time in my life,” he said. “It was amazing to come together and form a bond as young men … We were the best because we believed in each other and knew we could accomplish anything with each other by our sides.”

And it started with Suttie, who was in his fourth year at the program and the oldest coach at 30. His ability to motivate the Knights has become legendary. He would invoke pro wrestlers, Shakespeare, Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield and just about anything to get the players pumped up.

“He had an awe-inspiring speech for every team we played, every town,” said Hall. “I don’t know if it was all true but we believed every word about it.”

“I would say probably 85 percent of it was false,” said Craig Agreste, a 23-year-old assistant on that team, and now a wellness teacher and coach at Thornton Academy. “But he got the kids up, gave them the spark they needed. He always had the pulse of that team in that sense.”

Suttie now calls it false bravado.

“Yeah, we did a lot of posturing,” said Suttie, who would punctuate each Noble touchdown with a right-handed uppercut. “I look back at some of the antics that I pulled back then to try to get our kids to believe they could beat Biddeford or South Portland and we were probably a little over the top.”

Brian Curit, the coach at Biddeford then and now, said Suttie obviously had the right words for his team.

“John was really smart, he had a good core of athletes and he got his kids to believe in what he was doing,” said Curit. “He got them to believe it was ‘The world against us.’ It was them against the big, bad Biddefords and South Portlands.”

PREPARING FOR THE CHALLENGE

In the second week of the season, Noble lost 22-8 at South Portland, which was in the midst of what would be a 31-game winning streak. Still, no one would have imagined the teams meeting in a regional final two months later, especially after Noble lost to Marshwood 14-9 in the regular-season finale to finish 6-2.

But the Knights beat Thornton Academy 15-0 in the first round of the playoffs, then took on powerhouse Biddeford at Kaplan Field in the semifinals.

The night before the game, Suttie read his players a verse from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” It begins, “That he which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made.”

“Just a message to tell the kids: you’re either all-in or all-out,” said Suttie, who has a framed version of that verse on the wall in his office at Old Orchard.

He ended by telling the team, “If we can beat Biddeford in a playoff game, you’ll always be remembered.”

The next day, as the Knights prepared to go to the field, Suttie signaled assistant coach Josh Gould, standing at the bottom of the hill leading to the stadium, to have the announcer begin playing “Small Town.” The song began, the crowd roared and …

“We couldn’t hear anything, (the crowd) was deafening,” said Suttie. “That was the first emotional moment for me. Win or lose that day, it was overwhelming.”

Noble won 14-0 and as Suttie gathered his players in a circle after the game, “Small Town” began playing again. He looked at his players and saw tears on every face.

“I didn’t know what to say,” said Suttie. “So I said, ‘Everyone up. Group hug.’ And we stayed there for 30 seconds.”

“Nothing needed to be said,” said Poore. “I get choked up just thinking about that now.”

The regional final against South Portland was to have been played on a Saturday but was postponed to Monday after a Friday night snowstorm left Martin Field in South Portland unplayable. Another foot of snow fell on Sunday and crews plowed the field as best they could, leaving 3-foot high snowbanks on the sidelines.

“Everyone was right on top of you,” said Suttie, “standing on the snowbanks.”

The score was 7-7 after regulation. As overtime approached, Suttie tried to confer with his coaches – Bickford and Agreste – in the press box.

“All I’m getting is heavy breathing in the headphones,” Suttie recalled. “All of a sudden I get, ‘It’s Bick. I’m hyperventilating.’ I tell him to give me Craig. He says, ‘I can’t. He’s in the corner praying.’ They’re doing the overtime coin flip and I have no one to talk to.”

Bickford and Agreste say that’s an exaggeration. But Gould, who was also in the press box, said it’s fairly accurate.

In overtime, the Knights stopped three South Portland runs, Hall blowing up each play. The snap on the Riots’ field-goal attempt was high.

In came Noble. After Hartford was stopped on a run, Suttie sent in Troy Brown to kick a 27-yard field goal. Brown kicked 11 field goals in the regular season and didn’t miss this one.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Poore. “We won. Then everybody ran onto the field and I must have been kissed by five or six different girls, which was awesome for me at the time.”

The next week, with the state Class A championship game again postponed to Monday night because of a weekend snowstorm, Noble gave up the opening touchdown, then overwhelmed Gardiner at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland to complete its championship.

The Knights returned to Berwick, where the high school was located at the time, for a celebration that has never ended for those who were part of it. When players who still live in the area go to Noble games these days, they invariably run into someone who wants to talk about that magical season.

“They haven’t forgotten,” said Chandler. “It’s like it was yesterday.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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