March 12, 2010

The misfits who fit, so very well

— The pipefitter from Wells, working at the shipyard in Kittery. The strong-willed kid from Portland, fresh out of high school.

The 25-year-old from Gorham, working odd jobs. The transfer student from the University of Maine at Farmington. The basketball player from America's Deep South, Doug Harmon.

''We were the misfits, brought together by the coach that we had the love-hate relationship with,'' said Jeff Bowers. ''I don't think we knew then how it was going to turn out.''

They became the most successful men's college basketball team the state has seen, reaching the Final Four of the 1989 NCAA Division III championships. The University of Southern Maine lost to Trenton State of New Jersey in the semifinals, and in the consolation game beat Centre College out of Kentucky.

Twenty years later many of them will reunite with their coach, Bob Brown, and come back to the place where they heard the loudest cheers.

They'll be recognized today during halftime of USM's afternoon game against UMass-Dartmouth.

Chances are someone will talk of the accomplishments and statistics, but that will mean less to the men than the delight of simply being together again.

''From a talent standpoint we weren't great,'' said Todd Miranda. ''From a chemistry standpoint we were huge.''

For the record, the 1988-89 team, in the middle of Brown's three-year coaching stint, was 24-7. Brown's first and last teams were 21-8 and 21-9. All reached the NCAA tournament. Individual players from those three teams hold USM records but their numbers typically don't lead the school's top-10 lists.

Playing for Brown meant you couldn't bring your ego into the locker room or onto the court. Ask Miranda, who starred at Portland High.

''I was a 20-point scorer in high school and I'm hearing I'm going to be distributing the points, not scoring them. We butted heads.''

Brown attracted winners. Many, including Miranda and Bowers, who played for Brown at South Portland High, were off championship teams. Pat Moody at Wells, Mike Francoeur at Westbrook, Mark Karter at Waterville, Joe Cawley at Morse.

''Losing wasn't stuff we were used to and Coach was not going to allow us to not give our best.'' said Miranda. ''We played hard and we were a feisty group.''

Brown was demanding, sometimes unrelenting in his intensity. You played by his rules. You couldn't walk away from the team, either. Mike Zamarchi, a Marshwood grad, tried. He told Brown he needed to spend more time on his schoolwork. Brown checked on his players' classroom work weekly. He wouldn't let Zamarchi quit, telling him to think of the children he might have someday.

What would Zamarchi say to his kids when they wanted to quit? Zamarchi stayed with the team.

''(Brown) taught you how to be an adult and about accountability. Even how to shake hands and look people in the eye,'' said Zamarchi.

Bowers knows. He bounced through three schools, including a year at USM playing for Brown's predecessor, Joey Bouchard. Bowers was 25 and working dead-end jobs when Brown found him. ''Hey, you're going to come to USM and play for me.''

Bowers couldn't refuse his high school coach. He said he'd register for classes. Later he bought a six-pack. ''I went down to the water in South Portland, sat on some rocks, drank the beer and cried. I knew what he'd put me through.''

Bowers downplayed his impact in that 1988-89 season. Others won't. Bowers' shooting in NCAA tournament wins over higher-seeded North Adams State and Western Connecticut State had opposing fans saluting him, according to Al Bean, then USM's sports information director and the current athletic director. A quarterfinal win over Franklin & Marshall on the USM court with Bowers hitting big shots ranks as one of the more exciting basketball games Bean has witnessed, including games played by the highly successful USM women.

''Jeff Bowers was a Division I player in a Division III uniform,'' said Tim Bonsant, the UM-Farmington transfer who grew up in South China and played at Erskine Academy. ''We had a few of those.''

They were primarily Maine kids from big towns or rural crossroads. ''We took a lot of pride in being from Maine,'' said Bonsant, who became Brown's primary shot-blocker, rebounder and a scorer.

''They were tough kids,'' said Brown, who left USM to become head coach at Boston University. He's at Cheverus High now.

''Coaching that team was really one of my proudest moments,'' said Brown. ''It was Maine basketball at its best.''

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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