February 25, 2010

Truly, a decade to remember

— Peter Metcalf circled the ice, a Maine hockey jersey held aloft. On its back, the name Shawn Walsh was very visible. As Metcalf's skates moved, he yelled. In his heart, he cried.

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Staff Photo by John Ewing, Thu, Apr 26, 2001: UMO hockey coach Shawn Walsh.

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Associated Press

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''I was yelling, 'We finally did it, Coach. You'd be proud of us. We're going to take it all the way.' ''

Metcalf took another deep breath outside the University of Maine locker room in what was then called the Worcester Centrum. It was March 24, 2002. Maine had just beaten Boston College 4-3 in the final of the NCAA Regional.

''I know that he just lit up a big cigar,'' said Metcalf, recalling one of Walsh's vices. ''He's puffing on it right now.''

This is one of the memories of the past decade. I wrote more than 2,000 columns over those years and my assignment for today was to pull out five of the most memorable. I added a few more.

Throw out the Patriots and Red Sox, my boss told me. Throw out the ones that don't involve people living in Maine. Keep the ones that impacted readers. My first list had 40 columns.

Shawn Walsh and his last year with us and the first year without him won't be forgotten. How he handled his diagnosis of cancer and his new marriage with his passion for Maine hockey was a unique story. How his players and his successor, Tim Whitehead, handled the months after made for many more columns. Lynne Walsh's quiet grief and grace were amazing, if not inspiring.

When Whitehead called his name that day, six months after the funeral, Metcalf didn't know what to expect. While Walsh's jersey had been at every game, this was a spontaneous act. Maine had lost to Boston College the year before. Walsh was ejected in the third period for arguing. It was the last game he coached, and many Maine and Boston College fans sensed the moment.

As Metcalf stood in the Centrum corridor, he talked about feeling Walsh's presence. ''If I'm slow getting back to cover someone, I hear him yelling in the back of my head.''

That day, Metcalf yelled back. We did it, Coach.


They wouldn't get haircuts, loved to goof around, and bonded with each other in the way the best teammates do. Nick Finocchiaro, Zach Collett, Reid Coloumbe and all the others fancied themselves as Westbrook's Idiots, much as Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz did the summer before when the Red Sox won the World Series.

The Westbrook Little League All-Stars didn't march into the World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., in August 2005, and it would be unkind to say they stumbled. They did lose their first three games in the New England tournament and were about to return home to await the start of school.

Instead they kept winning ballgames and hearts, and that trip to Little League's version of Never Never Land. For all their impishness off the field, they were serious ballplayers once the first pitch was thrown. Still, Westbrook lost its first two games.

They played one more game before the bus ride home and beat Owensboro, Ky., 3-2 to cheers in the small stadium and back in Maine. The taint of steroids was everywhere in baseball but here.

The parade through Westbrook followed. So did an invitation to take the field at Fenway Park and stand at their positions next to their heroes when the national anthem was played. Jake Gardiner turned to face the flag on the pole in left-center field. Millar tapped his shoulder.

Hey kid, you're in the big leagues now. We face the color guard.

That's when the nervousness left Gardiner's body. He laughed. Elsewhere on Fenway's very green grass, Westbrook's Boys of Summer let the moment wash over them. They won't experience anything like it again.


''No thank you,'' said Abby Spector when someone repeated an offer she could refuse. She would not accept a ride in a golf cart. She would play and she would walk.''

I began my column with that scene from the Rockland Golf Club on a very muggy and hot late July day in 2005. Spector was playing in yet another Women's Maine State Amateur golf championship but this one was bittersweet. Two years earlier she nearly lost her life during open-heart surgery to repair a rupture.

She did lose her sight. Her muscles lost the memories of how to hit a golf ball off a tee or tap in for a three-foot putt. She didn't lose her will to succeed or the poise that helps good athletes become great athletes. She didn't lose the sunny disposition that endeared her to fans.

In late March 2004, Spector posted a message on the Natanis Golf Course Web site to friends. She wrote about training at a gym near her Waterville home and working on her short-term memory by memorizing the American presidents and the history of Vietnam.

''My eyesight has progressed from complete blindness to 20/25 with some small blind spots. I can't drive a car yet but you won't keep me out of a golf cart I'm moving and thinking and seeing much better, and I am happy to be pumping blood.''

Spector shot a 95 during one round of the 2005 tournament. She shot a 66 on the same course years before. Her goals in this tournament were to finish without using a golf cart and place in the top 10. She did walk from tee to fairway to green on every hole.

She married her best friend and caddie, Josh Kershner. They teach golf at clubs and resorts from New England to Florida.


It took a day for Ricky Craven to fully understand what he had done. ''That was my Thrilla in Manila,'' said Craven, referring to Muhammad Ali's defining moment -- a brutal win over Joe Frazier in their heavyweight title fight. ''It was Kirk Gibson hitting his home run off Dennis Eckersley, I guess.''

Craven was on the phone the day after he won the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington, S.C. That was March 17, 2003, a breathless day for NASCAR fans everywhere. Craven beat Kurt Busch to the finish line by inches. For two laps, no one in the grandstands or watching on television knew which driver would win.

It was bare-knuckle racing on NASCAR's most difficult and oldest raceway. Last week, Craven's finish was voted the top race of the decade by members of NASCARMedia.com.

Few athletes are lucky enough to have defining moments. The Steelers' James Harrison's return of an interception for a touchdown in last year's Super Bowl is one.

Craven's career was marked by more frustration and disappointment than victory. He was the Maine man from Newburgh who overcame the highest odds to race in the big leagues of NASCAR. He was shuffled out of a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, some thought unfairly, after a head injury at Talladega. The rides that followed were with teams short on dollars and expertise, but long on hope.

Winning at Darlington was Craven's second victory in Cup racing and his last.


She wasn't the first girl to wrestle boys in Maine; she was the best. That's why Deanna Rix's story is so memorable, four years after Sanford High's Shane Leadbetter beat her by one point in overtime for the Class A 130-pound title.

Rix heard the talk as her career at Marshwood High was ending. People didn't lower their voice when she passed. Rix was grabbing headlines and television cameras because she was a girl in a boys' sport. Overlooked was the fact she was beating the boys.

Rix cried on the mat after Leadbetter escaped her grasp, earning the winning point. She cried not so much from the defeat as from the sudden release of pressure. Her father was the Marshwood coach and her teammates were so many brothers, but she was in a lonely place when she walked onto the mat during the postseason tournaments that year.

She was the one who was different.

Lisa Nowak was the first girl to wrestle boys nearly 10 years earlier. Watching Rix wrestle in the final at the Augusta Civic Center, tears rolled down Nowak's face. She remembered the small and big humiliations she suffered.

''There's enough interest among girls who want to wrestle,'' said Nowak that night. ''There's still not enough courage to try. Deanna can change that.''


Nick Pelotte didn't have Nik Caner-Medley's gifts of height and strength. He wasn't recruited to play basketball at Maryland. In fact, Pelotte had to sell himself to a Division III coach who initially told him to go away.

''I already had four small guards,'' said Plymouth State Coach John Scheinman in April 2005. ''We were all set.''

Pelotte, the face of the great Valley High teams that won four consecutive Class D titles and a statewide following, didn't give up.

Scheinman, after listening to fellow coaches say he was making a mistake, invited Pelotte to try out. Four years later he had a Division III third-team All-American.

The kid who wasn't yet 5 feet tall as a high school freshman capped his career by scoring 62 points and handing out 13 assists in a double-overtime loss to Western Connecticut in the Little East Conference tournament.

He had grown to 5-10, 150 pounds, or so the Plymouth State media guide said. No one questioned his determination.

''We won 82 games in his four years,'' said Scheinman. ''That's never been done (here) before. He's responsible for that. He brought the crowds back into our gym. I hear from his teachers that he's an incredible kid. I hear the same thing from other students.''

Pelotte and his Valley teammates won 83 straight regular-season and playoff games. One year there was talk of Valley taking on Deering for bragging rights after the state championships were decided. The game was never played but it didn't stop basketball fans from wondering. What if


He was a 52-year-old college basketball player and at first that was the story in February 2006. Those who watched Charlie Bickford run the court for the University of Maine-Augusta team marveled. Opponents sought him out before to shake his hand.

The media rushed to tell his story. ''I wanted to get in shape,'' said Bickford that winter, working to complete a four-year degree in nursing and commuting from Belfast. ''I had no idea who the coach was or if he'd even want me. I told him I played ball a long time ago.

''I didn't say how long.''

Playing basketball at UMA usually was a student-athlete's fourth priority, behind family, classroom and job. Many times Coach Jim Ford didn't know if he had five players available for game nights or seven. Sometimes Bickford was the sixth man and the last man.

UMA was fighting for the last spot in the Yankee Small College Conference playoffs when it walked into the small field house at Unity College. Ford had six players. After a long season, some of the starters were nursing injuries. Jonathan Hill, a Hall-Dale High graduate and one of the league's top scorers and rebounders, left the game with a hamstring pull.

Ford looked at Bickford, his 6-foot-4 sub, who had a partially torn Achilles' tendon and a balky knee he injured in football years ago. We need you, Charlie. We can't win this game with four players.

Bickford scored on a layup and two foul shots. He grabbed rebounds. UMA won. Afterward he stayed a long time in the visiting locker room, trying to stop his tears.

For most of his life he had run from a speech impediment. He enrolled in one college after another, only to quit.

''I stuttered. I couldn't speak like everyone else. Every night I prayed to God to relieve me of this.''

Bickford mastered his stuttering in his 40s. He married and started a family. UMA became the seventh college he attended. He earned his two-year degree in 1999.

In 2006, in a small gym, before a small crowd and one of his two young sons, Bickford was there for his teammates and perhaps more importantly, for himself.

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


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Additional Photos

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Staff Photo by Herb Swanson, Saturday, February 5, 2005: Deanna Rix of Marshwood (top) wrestles Ryan Keenan of Cheverus at the Class A Western Maine regional wrestling meet in Biddeford Saturday.

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Photo by John Ewing...02/24/01...Valley's Nick Pelotte shoots a runnera over Monmouth's Bryan Witherell for two of his game high 33 points.


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