(Ed. Note: With high school sports currently on hiatus, please join me in a look back at some of the finest teams our coverage area has produced this century. To help us get through the summer, each week, I’ll present the top 10 teams from a different sport…four honorable mentions, then our “Super Six,” These rankings are put together with help from coaches and others, including a Twitter poll each week at twitter.com/foresports, but the final decision is mine. This week’s boys’ basketball countdown wraps up this project. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much I did putting it together…)

Previous countdowns
Baseball
Softball
Boys’ lacrosse
Girls’ lacrosse
Football
Boys’ soccer
Girls’ soccer
Field hockey
Volleyball
Girls’ hockey
Boys’ hockey
Girls’ basketball

For the better part of three months, I’ve lamented how difficult it’s been limiting these countdowns to 10 teams and coming up with the correct order.

Trust me, nothing was as hard as this countdown.

Boys’ basketball garners the lion’s share of the sports fan’s attention every winter and for good reason. The quality of play, passion and attachment of communities-to-teams makes for can’t-miss games and tournaments.

Since 2001-02, Forecaster Country has produced so many superb players, including multiple Mister Maine Basketball finalists, as well as 16 state championship teams and many title contenders who fell just short.

As a result, there’s a lot here to digest and for every great team, there’s an advocate for it to have the highest ranking, as well as a claim to be made for someone else to take its spot.

With that in mind and for what it’s worth, here’s one writer’s stab at the finest squads we’ve seen since the start of the 2001-02 campaign, my first season on the beat:

Honorable mentions (in chronological order)

2007-08 Cheverus Stags, 19-3, Class A state champion

File photos

After numerous close calls, Cheverus reached the mountain-top, surprising many in the process, capping its season with a stunning upset of a seemingly unbeatable foe and earning longtime coach Bob Brown’s nod as his best Cheverus team. The Stags, who had lost in the semifinals or regional final six years running, rode the brilliance of Mick DiStasio, along with Doug Alston, Ian Barwise, Peter Foley and an Australian-born sophomore with the colorful name of Indiana Faithfull, as they truly saved their best for last.

Cheverus was dominant early, winning its first four games by an average of 34 points. The Stags then first hinted that they might be something special with a 68-62 home victory over recent nemesis/reigning regional champion Portland. Nine more wins followed, with only two (54-42 over Scarborough and 63-61, in overtime, over South Portland) being relatively competitive, but in an eight-day span late in the regular season, Cheverus stumbled mightily, losing at home to Thornton Academy and South Portland, then at Portland. The Stags righted the ship in the finale, a 66-48 victory at Deering, then went into the Western A tournament as the top seed where they marched to an elusive title.

In the quarterfinals, the Stags got a test from No. 9 Windham, but went on to a 50-40 victory behind 13 points from Alston, a dozen from Barwise and 11 from Faithfull. Cheverus then passed its biggest mental test, beating Portland in the semifinals by the surprisingly emphatic score of 63-49 (DiStasio dazzled with 22 points, Faithfull added 13 points and Foley finished with 10). In the regional final, Thornton Academy gave the Stags all they could handle, but Cheverus got a dozen points from Barwise and eight more from DiStasio, the regional tournament MVP, and prevailed, 40-31. Awaiting the Stags in the state final was an undefeated, defending state champion Bangor squad riding a 31-game win streak and being touted as one of the finest in state history and for a half that narrative rung true, as the Rams held a 24-14 lead at the break. Then, in one of the finest halves of basketball in Cheverus annals, the Stags answered and went on to an exhilarating 49-41 win. DiStasio scored 19 of his 23 points after the break and Cheverus went ahead for good on an Alston 3-point shot with 5:27 to play. The Stags had peaked at exactly the right time.

Coach Bob Brown: “We felt we were great at the first part of the season. We thought we had fallen apart (with three straight losses to end the regular season), but after the tournament, we thought we were a pretty good team. What we did was, through the evolution of winning a lot of games and then losing three, was finding out that this is still a team game. The thing about Bangor is they’re so far up (state) that we didn’t know they were supposed to be unbeatable.”

2009-10 Falmouth Yachtsmen, 21-1, Class B state champion

The Yachtsmen’s first title at the Class B level took an extra four minutes to achieve and was simply unforgettable. Falmouth, which had lost three times in five seasons in the regional final, including in 2009 to Cape Elizabeth, featured the talents of Stefano Mancini, Jack Cooleen, Sam Horning, Jahrel Registe, John Roberts and Ryan Rogers, stumbled just once all season and rose to meet myriad challenges when the postseason commenced.

The Yachtsmen won their first 17 games by an average of 22 points and only three times prevailed by single digits, 62-55 at Cape Elizabeth, 54-51 at Yarmouth and 60-56 at York. Falmouth’s quest for perfection was denied in the season finale, when it fell at home in front of an overflow crowd, 48-45, to Cape Elizabeth, dropping the Yachtsmen to second in Western B for the tournament, but by the end of the tournament, Falmouth made it clear it was a team without peer.

In the quarterfinals, the Yachtsmen fought off York’s upset bid, 59-49, as Mancini scored 24 points (nine came in the fourth quarter) and Horning and Rogers each contributed 13. Falmouth then rolled over Mountain Valley, 67-37, in the semifinals (Mancini went off for 28 points) to set up a regional final showdown/rematch with Cape Elizabeth. This time, it would be the Yachtsmen’s night, as they pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 53-40 victory. Mancini capped his run as the regional tournament’s MVP with 24 points, Roberts added 12 points and Rogers finished with 10. Finally, Falmouth was off to the Class B state final where it would have to battle defending champion Camden Hills in the Bangor Auditorium. The teams would produce an epic. The Yachtsmen went down by eight, had to play a long stretch without a foul-prone Mancini, then after recovering to go up by 10, let that lead slip away, then forced overtime on a late Roberts free throw. In OT, Falmouth sealed its destiny, as it scored the game’s final eight points to win, 72-65. Manicni was brilliant in his swan song, despite being saddled with foul trouble, finishing with 27 points. Rogers added 14 points and Horning and Roberts each contributed 11. It wasn’t easy, but the Yachtsmen were kings of the Class B world at last and even though a deacde has passed, the way they did so remains vivid.

Coach Dave Halligan: “Every championship is special. If we’re going to win a state championship in basketball, (the Bangor Auditorium) is the place to win it. The atmosphere is great. The kids will remember this for the rest of their lives. I’m so happy for our senior group. They really worked hard for this. They earned it. We worked through adversity. It’s a team victory. That’s the best part. It’s nice winning, but it’s really about the journey with these kids. They’re a terrific group of young men who will be successful off the court.”

2009-10 Cheverus Stags, 21-1, Class A state champion

They were perhaps the most talked-about and scrutinized championship team on record, one which is no longer recognized as a champion, but the Stags won the games they had to win and got to the pinnacle despite being surrounded by a whirlwind of controversy. Cheverus, which won Class A in 2008 and with a perfect record, was expected to repeat in 2009, only to be upset by Thornton Academy in the semifinals, was highly-touted entering the 2010 campaign. The Stags, led by senior point guard extraordinaire and eventual Mr. Maine Basketball Indiana Faithfull, as well as Griffin Brady, Matt Cimino, Louie DiStasio, Alex Furness, Peter Gwilym, Connor O’Neil, Kyle Randall and Joe Savino, would lose Faithfull when it appeared he’d used up his eligibility, but legal action put him back on the floor for the tournament and Cheverus went on to win the Gold Ball. For the time being.

The Stags started with a 45-point victory at Noble, then edged Westbrook, 50-48, on Faithfull’s late hoop. Cheverus wasn’t tested again for nearly the remainder of the regular season, roaring to a 13-0 record with an average victory margin of 25, but with five games to go, it was discovered that Faithfull (due to time spent playing in Australia before moving to Maine) had used up his eight semesters of eligibility and wouldn’t be able to finish the year. The Stags managed to down Gorham, Marshwood, Sanford and Deering before closing with a 53-43 loss at South Portland. Cheverus was the top seed for the Western A tournament, but without Faithfull, it appeared to be vulnerable. As it turned out, the Stags wouldn’t be without Faithfull for the postseason after all.

Prior to Cheverus’ quarterfinal round playoff game versus Scarborough, the Portland Exposition Building came alive with rumors that Faithfull was going to play. Indeed, his family had gone to court seeking a temporary injunction, the ruling went in their favor and he was reinstated. The Stags won the game, 49-34, as Faithfull scored 10 points (Furness led the way with 15 and DiStasio added 11). In the semifinals, Cheverus held off Windham, 40-30. Faithfull led the way with 16 points. In the regional final versus Westbrook, the Stags erased a six-point third quarter deficit and rode a 23-7 run to a 56-46 victory. Faithfull, the regional tournament MVP, led the way with 22 points, Furness added 18 and Gwilym, much better known for his brilliance on the gridiron, stepped up huge with eight points of his own. Edward Little was the final obstacle in the state game and again, Cheverus had what it took, building an early lead, then holding on for a 55-50 triumph. Faithfull’s high school career did indeed come to an end, as he bowed out with 23 points. Brady added 13 and the Stags took home the Gold Ball.

But they didn’t keep it. In October of 2012, the Maine Principals’ Association’s Interscholastic Management Committee voted unanimously to vacate Cheverus’ championship, as Faithfull was deemed ineligible. The saga has come and gone, but there’s no dispute that thpse Stags were a terrific team, even if they no longer have anything to show for it. Other than triumphant memories.

Coach Bob Brown: “All my players know (we won it). I know. I think everybody knows. It was a whirlwind. We had just enough to hang in there. It’s been such a crazy season for us, but the kids hung together. I can’t say enough for the team. Everyone was a contributor along the way. What you don’t see on the scoreboard is how much (the kids) like each other. It works. I have six guys who were basically practice players, but they accepted their role and they pushed us. We won two states and lost five games in three years. You put the ball in (Indi’s) hands and you win. It’s nice.”

2015-16 Portland Bulldogs, 21-1, Class A state champion

The Bulldogs will be best remembered for avoiding an epic upset and outlasting South Portland in a state game for the ages, but the first of consecutive state championship teams was a veritable juggernaut that simply refused to lose. Portland, which beat Hampden Academy in the 2014 state final, then lost to the Broncos in 2015, was led by Joe Esposito, Pedro Fonseca, Griffin Foley, Charlie Lyall, Amir Moss, Terion Moss, John Williams and Manny Yugu, lived up to the hype as the favorite and fell three points shy of an undefeated campaign.

The Bulldogs started 8-0, winning by an average of 32 points, then were shocked by visiting Gorham, 58-55. Portland then won its final nine regular season contests, by an average of 18 points, to wind up 17-1 and earn the top seed for the inaugural Class AA North tournament. Despite having to play their tournament games away from home, in Augusta, the Bulldogs took care of business and brought home the Gold Ball for the second time in three years.

After earning a bye into the semifinals, Portland rolled past Edward Little, 70-43, as Terion Moss scored 18 points and Amir Moss and Foley each added 14. In the regional final against rival Deering, the Bulldogs were even more impressive, prevailing, 70-39, behind 19 points from Amir Moss, 16 from Terion Moss, 12 from Esposito and 11 from Foley, to reach the state final for the third year in a row. There, Portland was expected to win decisively again against a South Portland squad which went .500 during the regular season, but in front of a large and vocal crowd at the Civic Center in Portland, the Bulldogs would discover that 32 minutes weren’t enough. Nor were 36. In a contest that was nip-and-tuck throughout, featuring a dozen lead changes, Portland consistently answered the Red Riots and the game would go to one overtime, then a second before the Bulldogs did just enough to survive in an instant classic, 52-50. Portland was paced by 27 points from Amir Moss in his swan song and 11 more from Foley. Portland had its championship, barely, and would be back for more the following winter.

Coach Joe Russo: “These particular kids have had so much success. We’ve been (to states) three times in a row. The kids work hard and they love basketball with a passion. That (state) game was almost like no words could describe it because the scenario was so different. I’ve coached in some incredible games in front of a packed house, but this game was special. It was an incredible game and it’s so much better from my end because we won. It’s more fun to win. What a dramatic finish. I thought it was amazing.”

The Super Six

6) 2012-13 Falmouth Yachtsmen, 21-1, Class B state champion

A powerhouse that featured its share of big names, but ultimately stood apart due to its depth, Falmouth steamrolled the opposition in the tournament, winning four games by an average of 27 points, and captured Class B for the second and final time. The Yachtsmen, who had their undefeated run ended in stunning fashion by Yarmouth in the previous year’s regional final, boasted Grant Burfeind, freshman Thomas Coyne, Charlie Fay, Jack Simonds and Tom Wilberg, as well as Nick Burton and Justin Rogers in complementary roles, and they proved to be a matchup nightmare for everyone they faced.

Falmouth made a powerful opening statement with a 23-point win at rival Cape Elizabeth and also decisively handled Greely (63-45), Yarmouth (55-34) and York (71-51) during a perfect first half of the season. The Yachtsmen eventually won their first 16 contests, handling Cape Elizabeth and Greely a second time along the way, before finally stumbling, 65-39, at York. After closing with a 69-35 drubbing of Yarmouth, Falmouth earned the top seed for the Western B tournament and left the field in its wake en route to the pinnacle.

In the quarterfinals, the Yachtsmen nearly doubled up Maranacook in a 58-30 triumph, as Fay scored 15 points, Burfeind had 13, Coyne a dozen and Wilberg 11. Falmouth was even more ruthless against Mountain Valley in the semifinals, holding the Falcons to just 22 points in a 36-point triumph. Simonds led a balanced attack with 13 points, Fay added a dozen and Coyne and Wilberg each finished with 11. The Yachtsmen then avenged their only loss when they handled York, 67-46, in the regional final. Simonds scored 19 points, Burfeind added 17, Coyne came off the bench to score 11 and Wilberg also wound up in double figures with 10. Falmouth’s first trip to the Class B state final resulted in an overtime victory over Camden Hills in 2010. Three years later, against Medomak Valley, no such drama would be necessary. The Yachtsmen opened up a 14-point halftime advantage and went on to a 62-39 victory. Simonds paced the offense with 21 points, Wilberg added 15 and Coyne finished with 14. Falmouth had left no doubt it was the finest team in Class B and one of the best from our coverage area over the past two decades.

Coach Dave Halligan: “The kids came out ready. We strive for perfection and good things happen. We thought we could be good. We were just untested. We had good games in the preseason and over Christmas. We got a little cocky, which is human nature, but we responded well. They’re special in that they’re great kids. You’d want every one of them to be your son. They’ve earned it. I really appreciate them.”

5) 2016-17 Greely Rangers, 22-0, Class A state champion

After years and years of near-misses and February agony, the Rangers broke through. In emphatic and perfect fashion and in the process, they paved the way for two more championships to come. Greely was led by seniors Jordan Bagshaw, Ryan Twitchell and eventual Mr. Maine Basketball winner Matt McDevitt and also featured Zach Brown, Mikey Coppersmith, Shane DeWolfe, Jack Kane and Evan Wood. The Rangers, who got more votes than any other team in our Twitter poll, had their share of scares along the way, but this time, when it mattered most, they simply wouldn’t be denied.

Greely started with a 62-44 home win over Cape Elizabeth, then handled contenders York (77-51), Brunswick (55-44), Yarmouth (80-58) and Gorham (64-53) in succession. The Rangers opened the 2017 portion of their schedule by outlasting host Falmouth in an overtime thriller, 55-54, as McDevitt and Bagshaw each scored 17 points. While Greely rolled over most teams from there, one mighty obstacle still stood between it and a perfect season. On Jan. 10, the Rangers went to Yarmouth and had to go to triple-overtime before surviving the Clippers’ upset bid, 82-74. Greely erased an early 20-3 deficit, forced a second OT on a clutch McDevitt 3-pointer, then made enough plays in the third extra session to stay perfect, thanks in large part to McDevitt’s 33 points. The Rangers closed the regular season with a 61-44 home win over Falmouth (McDevitt had 22 points and Brown and Twitchell added 15 apiece) to go 18-0 for the first time in 20 years. Greely took the top seed into the tournament and would prove to have no peer.

In the quarterfinals, the Rangers scored the game’s first 11 points, went up 44-12 at halftime and rolled, 76-31, behind 17 points apiece from Bagshaw and McDevitt. Greely then got pushed to the brink by York in the semifinals and even trailed by a point early in the fourth period before going on to a 59-54 win, as McDevitt had 16 points, Bagshaw 15 and Twitchell 14. Falmouth hoped to spring the upset in the regional final, but the Rangers refused to lose, prevailing, 47-26, to win their first regional title since 1998. Twitchell led the way with an impressive double-double of 13 points and 17 rebounds, while McDevitt added 11 points. Greely had to travel to Augusta to take on underdog Messalonskee in the state final and the Rangers ended things quickly, as McDevitt’s 13-point first quarter helped produce an 18-7 lead. Greely extended its lead to an insurmountable 36-10 at halftime and went on to a 59-43 triumph, as McDevitt scored 23 points, including the 1,000th of his career, Bagshaw added 17 and Twitchell finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. For the first time in 19 years, the Rangers were champions at last thanks to a team, with its determined senior leaders, that was simply undeniable.

Coach Travis Seaver: “This is awesome. It means a lot to the program. The kids have been focused all year. I’m super proud of them. We’re fortunate to have the group of guys that we have. We’ve had some great teams in the past, but it’s tough to win it. The way the guys have carried the target all year long and showed up every night focused was a testament to how much they wanted it. We have such great players and athletes. Even our guys off the bench could play elsewhere. We have seven or eight starters.”

4) 2013-14 Portland Bulldogs, 22-0, Class A state champion

After a decade away from the pinnacle, Portland returned with a perfect champion, one that was exceptional on the biggest stage. The Bulldogs, featuring stars Steve Alex, Joe Esposito, Travis Godbout, Amir Moss, Jayvon Pitts-Young, Matt Talbot and Justin Zukowski didn’t need as much championship game drama as the other two Portland teams in this countdown and matched the 1999 squad by going all the way without a single blemish.

Portland opened with an 84-31 romp at Massabesic and won its 18 regular season games by an average of 24 points. On only three occasions did the Bulldogs win by fewer than 10 points: 55-46 over visiting Cheverus, 48-44 at Marshwood and 69-60 at Bonny Eagle. Portland twice beat defending regional champion South Portland (79-49 and 64-42) and swept rival Deering as well (77-42 and 63-46). The Bulldogs finished atop the Western A Heal Points standings and won their four tournament games by an average of 17 points.

In the quarterfinals, Portland made quick work of Noble, 81-52, behind Alex’s sensational effort (22 points). Pitts-Young added 15 points, while Talbot finished with 14 and Moss and Zukowski each produced 13. In the semifinals, the Bulldogs broke open a tie game at halftime and went on to beat Deering, 64-49, as Zukowski finished with 20 points, including some big points late, and Pitts-Young added 15. Alex and Talbot had 10 points apiece. In the regional final versus Dustin Cole-led Bonny Eagle, Portland rose to the occasion, fending off every Scots’ run in a 70-60 victory. Godbout played the surprise hero with 17 points, Alex added 16 and Zukowski and Moss added 10 apiece as the Bulldogs advanced to the state final for the first time since 2007. There, against Hampden Academy at the Civic Center in Portland, the Bulldogs put on a show as they staked their claim to the Gold Ball. Talbot set the tone with an early 3 and by the end of the first quarter, Portland had a stunning 22-5 lead. The Broncos didn’t roll over and drew within 12 at halftime, but Pitts-Young put on a show in the third period and the Bulldogs went on to a 54-40 victory. Portland was paced by 16 points from Talbot, 12 from Pitts-Young and 11 from Zukowski as it steamrolled its way to the championship and began a mini-dynasty which would produce four straight regional champions and three Gold Ball winners in that same span.

Coach Joe Russo: “You always hope to play your best basketball in the biggest game of the year. We didn’t do it all the way through, but it was nice having that start offensively and defensively. I knew the guys were on all cylinders. I’ve had a lot of great teams that could’ve and should’ve. It takes a combination of skill and heart and this team has both. They have heart, skill and desire. This senior class is special. (Championships are) all special. It never gets old. It’s hard to explain the relationships you build with your players.”

3) 2001-02 Brunswick Dragons, 23-0, Class A state champion

The Dragons didn’t just make it to their first state final and win it. They did so in stunningly emphatic fashion against a team featuring the finest high school player of his era. Brunswick, led by Taylor Caron, Nick Duffy, Danny Hammond, Mike Lobikis, Drew Pelletier and a player whose star would shine that season, then even more brightly two years later, Ralph Mims, made the move to Eastern A, ran roughshod over the opposition and was at its most dominant on the biggest stage.

The Dragons made a statement during an 18-0 regular season, surviving one scare at Lawrence (a 61-60 victory), while winning games by over 25 points per outing. Along the way, Brunswick showed great balance and proved to be a matchup nightmare for everyone it faced. Hammond eclipsed the 1,000-point plateau in a season-ending win over Lawrence and the undefeated Dragons earned the No. 1 seed for the Eastern A tournament, where they would continue their onslaught.

After handling Messalonskee in the preliminary round, 74-49, Brunswick had to travel to the Bangor Auditorium to meet defending state champion Bangor in the quarterfinals, but the Dragons beat the Rams with stunning ease, 81-49, behind Mims’ 28 points and 18 points apiece from Hammond and Pelletier. In the semifinals, Brunswick got pushed by Mt. Blue, but survived and advanced, 53-45, as Mims again led the way with 25 points and Pelletier added 10. In the regional final versus Cony, the Dragons got another scare, but dug deep and won a trophy for the first time in program history, 71-66, thanks in large part to 23 points from Pelletier and 21 more from Mims, who hit two huge free throws in the final minute. That sent Brunswick to Portland to meet Deering in the state final. The Rams, who had lost on a buzzer-beater in the state game the year before, featured University of Maryland-bound superstar Nik Caner-Medley, along with standout Walter Phillips, but the Dragons would prove to be the better team. By a surprisingly large margin. Brunswick showed no nerves in front of a packed house, built a 41-24 lead at halftime and went on to a stunning 83-62 victory. Mims led the way with 31 points, while Hammond added 24, while also defending Caner-Medley (with some help). The greatest Dragons team of them all was perfection personified and will live on in school lore as long as they lace up the sneakers.

Coach Todd Hanson: “It was a great team effort. I looked up at the scoreboard and had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. We worked hard in practice. There wasn’t a lot of down time. When we step on the court for a game, we’re pretty well prepared.”

2) 2005-06 Deering Rams, 21-1, Class A state champion

The team that finally broke through and gave Deering a championship nearly a century in the making was a veritable powerhouse, one that had to overcome a fierce challenge from its biggest rival in the regional final, then dispatch another talented foe in a grudge match in the state game. The Rams had broken through and reached the state game in somewhat surprising fashion the year before, but lost to Hampden Academy in a foul-plague affair in Bangor. Deering returned Martin Cleveland, Eric Lelansky, Tim Miller, Joseph Nguany, Pat Plourd and Carlos Strong and faced the burden of being the favorite, but the Rams rose to the occasion and made history.

Deering opened the season with a 30-point win over Westbrook and the tone was set. The Rams won their first eight games and were only tested once, a 46-40 victory over Gorham. After being knocked from the unbeaten ranks by Portland (a 63-58 home loss), Deering wouldn’t stumble again. The Rams captured their final nine regular season contests, by an average of 26 points, and survived scares from Cheverus (50-49) and Biddeford (55-49) and avenged their lone loss with a 61-58 victory over Portland at the Expo. At 17-1, Deering earned the top seed for the Western A playoffs and this time, wouldn’t be denied the long-coveted Gold Ball.

In the quarterfinals, the Rams handled Kennebunk, 67-43, behind 17 points apiece from Nguany and Strong. Deering then made quick work of Marshwood, 57-32, in the semifinals, as Lelansky and Strong had 14 points apiece. The last regional step was the toughest, as Portland awaited. The Bulldogs and Rams fought for 32 memorable minutes, but with its destiny hanging in the balance, Deering did enough to prevail, 70-64, and repeat as Western A champion. Strong, the regional tournament MVP, had 29 points, including nine in the fourth period, and Cleveland added 19. The Rams earned a state final rematch with Hampden Academy and this time, the game was in Portland. That didn’t matter in the first half, as Deering only mustered 17 points, trailed by three and saw Strong saddled with three fouls. Then came the second half, where the Rams morphed into champions. A 14-2 run gave Deering some breathing room and it went on to a therapeutic 47-37 triumph behind 17 points from Nguany and 10 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots from Cleveland, who also helped hold Broncos’ big man Jordan Cook to a mere 11 points. Strong mustered nine points and Miller added eight big points of his own. The Rams’ quest for greatness had finally been fulfilled. What a triumphant team this was.

Coach Dan LeGage: “We finally got the monkey off our back. It was our goal from day one. It means a lot not only to the kids and the school, but to the community. This was for all the teams before. The guys weren’t going to give up. I could see it in their eyes. We started out playing individually and not as a team, then we learned to share the ball and play as a team.”

1) 2003-04 Portland Bulldogs, 21-1, Class A state champion

While this Portland team will be remembered for who it beat in the state final and how tough it was to do so, the truth is, these Bulldogs lived up to billing as the team to beat all year, fell two points shy of perfection, featured a little of everything and in light of their sheer balance, depth and start-to-finish excellence, they earn the top spot. Portland, featuring top scorer Rocco Toppi, playmaker Eric Shone, as well as key contributors Riko Bol, Jared Brownlee, Brandon Dorsett, Tyler Emmons, Quan Morgan, Joe Murphy and Eric Nelson, wore the bulls-eye with aplomb and made the plays when it mattered most.

The Bulldogs opened the regular season against three traditional rivals, but had no trouble defeating Westbrook (65-39), Deering (85-46) and South Portland (98-44). After winning two different Christmas tournaments, against foes from Maine, as well as teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York, Portland opened the 2004 portion of the schedule by rolling over Massabesic, then passing its lone test to date, edging host Marshwood, 49-47, as Shone scored 22 points, including two free throws in the waning seconds to win it. Ten more lopsided victories followed before the Bulldogs squared off against Cheverus in one of the most memorable regular season games you’ll ever see. In front of a capacity crowd at Southern Maine Community College (then the Stags’ home floor), the two title hopefuls produced an overtime thriller which saw Cheverus come out on top, 52-50. Portland closed with decisive wins over Deering (65-28) and South Portland (66-29) to go 17-1, but the Bulldogs wound up second behind Cheverus in the Western A tournament field. It wouldn’t matter, as Portland would ascend to the top regardless.

In the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs had no trouble getting past Sanford, 61-40. In the semifinals, Toppi (21 points) and Emmons (20 points) carried Portland to a 66-47 victory over Biddeford, setting up a rematch versus Cheverus in the regional final. The Bulldogs would avenge their lone defeat in impressive fashion, racing to a 23-8 lead after one quarter en route to a 68-52 triumph. Murphy drained a pair of clutch 3s early, while Emmons, the regional tournament MVP, led the way with 22 points. Shone finished with 16 points and Toppi added 14. Portland’s last obstacle was the most daunting of all, as Brunswick came to town for the state final completely unintimidated by the Bulldogs’ prowess. Behind standout/eventual Mr. Maine Basketball Ralph Mims, who would have a game for the ages, the Dragons made the Bulldogs earn their Gold Ball. Mims scored 15 first quarter points, but by halftime, Portland clung to a 29-26 advantage and the fun was just beginning. By the end of three periods, the Bulldogs trailed by seven, 44-37, but they refused to buckle. With just over a minute to go, Mims weaved through the whole Portland defense for a layup that put his team up by four, but Toppi made a jump shot and Shone made a layup after a steal and just like that, the game went to overtime, deadlocked at 56-56. In OT, Toppi converted an old-fashioned three-point play reached the 1,000-point plateau as the Bulldogs got enough stops and hit enough free throws to finally celebrate a draining and delicious 69-63 triumph. While Mims stole headlines with his 46-point performance, Portland’s balance proved to be too much. Toppi led the way with 28 points and 16 rebounds. Shone (on his 18th birthday) added 13 points and Emmons finished with a dozen. These Bulldogs had to scratch and claw to secure their date with destiny. This very special team will long rank as one of the finest in Maine annals.

Coach Joe Russo: “Give my guys credit. When you try that many things against a great player and it doesn’t work, there’s a tendency to get down and frustrated. I just told them to keep it up. We knew coming into the year that we would be one of the best teams in the state based on last year and having everyone back. We knew if we played our game, we’d be tough to beat. These guys are so special because they’re just wonderful kids. They’re so darn coachable and a lot of fun to be around. They know when to have fun and they know when to be serious. They all understand their role. It will be hard watching them go.”

Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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