A year before they joined forces on the 2017 South Portland American Little League all-star team, from left, Johnny Poole, Richie Gilboy, Nolan Hobbs, and Andrew Heffernan competed against each other in a travel ball contest. The longtime friends are now high school seniors and have a chance to win a second Class A state championship on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of John Heffernan

SOUTH PORTLAND — They got their first taste of acclaim as 12 year olds who came oh-so-close to making it all the way to the Little League World Series.

But the baseball story of South Portland High seniors Richie Gilboy, Andrew Heffernan, Nolan Hobbs and Johnny Poole – key contributors on the 2021 Class A state championship team – started long before they played before 4,500 fans and an ESPN audience while representing South Portland American at the 2017 Little League New England Regional.

When Gilboy, Heffernan and Hobbs first started playing together, they were 5- and 6-year-old neighbors trying to hang with the older boys in the daily games in Cranberry Circle, a three-house cul-de-sac tucked toward the rear of the pleasant residential development. Poole joined the group regularly a few years later, when he and Hobbs became teammates on the Willows Pizza Little League team coached by Jim Poole, Johnny’s dad. Gilboy and Heffernan played for Pape Chevrolet, coached by John Heffernan, Andrew’s father.

“We had probably a group of 10 guys that would go at it every day in Wiffle ball, and a lot of them were older,” Andrew Heffernan said. “And I feel like that’s why we got so good, because we played up against those guys.”

Andrew Heffernan sports his version of a rally cap during the sixth inning of the 2017 Little League New England championship game in Bristol, Conn. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gilboy, who lived nearby on the other side of the woods, agreed.

“Every game, we were trying to prove something. It was like a chip on our shoulders in Wiffle ball,” Gilboy said, laughing at the memory.


While they call it Wiffle ball, it was really a game with a tennis ball and a hard plastic bat, making it more realistic in terms of throwing, catching and making contact.

Now these four young men, heading soon to college to continue their baseball careers, have a final chance to add another special memory, along with eight other South Portland seniors.

South Portland (16-3) will face Edward Little (12-7) of Auburn at 3 p.m. Tuesday in the Class A championship game at Ed Flaherty Field at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham.

Nolan Hobbs of South Portland celebrates after scoring in the Red Riots’ 4-2 victory over Thornton Academy in the Class A South championship game on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“This is the place where we want to be. One last game, one last ride with the boys, and it would be nothing better than to end it off with a (win),” Heffernan said.

Heffernan, who will play for Merrimack College next season, will be the Red Riots’ starting pitcher, because rain forced postponement of the title game from Saturday to Tuesday. That wiped out any pitch-count restrictions for all players, including Heffernan (6-2, 0.44 ERA), who got a complete-game 4-2 win against Thornton Academy in the regional final on Wednesday.

Heffernan, who bats second, will be backed up by shortstop Poole, the team’s leadoff hitter, who will play next year at USM; third baseman Gilboy, who also plays catcher, bats third and will play next St. Michael’s College in Vermont; and clean-up hitter Hobbs, the first baseman and the No. 2 pitcher, who plans to play football and baseball at Bates College.


When they were sophomores, Hobbs started the championship game, Heffernan closed it and got the win against Bangor, Gilboy drew a bases-loaded walk to win the game in the bottom of the seventh, and Poole started at short after being moved to that position by Coach Mike Owens just before the regional final. The state championship was South Portland’s first in baseball since 1952.

South Portland High players surround Richie Gilboy, center, after his bases-loaded walk forced in the winning run in the 2021 Class A state championship game against Bangor. It was the first baseball state title for South Portland since 1952.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Before winning a high school title, the four players had been on South Portland American all-star teams from ages 9 through 12. In their final year of Little League, 2017, they won the league’s first district title since 1998, and first state title since 1967. At the New England Regional, they won three elimination games before falling in the final.

As seventh- and eighth-graders, they won Babe Ruth state titles with a greater Portland all-star team, once winning the New England championship and placing third at the Babe Ruth World Series in Arkansas.

Fellow senior Nick Swain, the team’s No. 5 hitter and a catcher/first baseman, grew up playing in South Portland National Little League. (South Portland now has one Little League). He didn’t get to play with his current teammates until they were on the middle school team.

“I think there’s lot of fond memories that they have that I wish I could be part of, but I still had a lot of fun. It’s just a little extra that I never got,” Swain said.

Owens said he knew the current seniors could be a special group. “We definitely had this group circled for a long time.”


But, as Owens pointed out, a lot can change between Little League and high school, including bodies, attitudes and ability. Gilboy was a wide-bellied 12-year-old known as Big Daddy Hacks. Now he’s slimmed down and is one of the faster players on the team. Heffernan was small in Little League, even smaller as a middle schooler, but now is a sturdy 6-foot-2.

What didn’t change is the Core Four’s love for baseball.

“Some people play just to be with their friends, or to get a (championship) ring, maybe. But other people like us, we just play because we love the game,” said Poole, who made a point of noting his personal competitive streak was honed by older brothers Jake and Anthony Poole.

South Portland’s Johnny Poole, left, celebrates after catching the final out against Lewiston in the 2017 Little League state championship game. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Owens says his team’s mental strength is what sets it apart.

“They just never seem to have any panic. They’ve been in so many different situations between Little League and Babe Ruth and now high school, so many big games, and I just think we lean on them,” Owens said. “If they show panic, we know we’re in trouble. In three years, I haven’t really seen it.”

Take the sixth inning of last week’s regional final against Thornton as an example. Heffernan gave up three soft singles, one a swinging bunt RBI, and South Portland was down 2-0.


Gilboy and Hobbs opened the bottom of the inning with ringing doubles that led to a four-run rally.

“I personally thought there was never a doubt we would fight back and score some runs,” Hobbs said. “I remember in Bristol (at the Little League regional), the first game we were down 5-2 in the top of the sixth and we scored four runs,” Hobbs said.

As sophomores, long-time baseball friends Nolan Hobbs, Richie Gilboy, Andrew Heffernan and Johnny Poole helped South Portland win the 2021 Class A state championship. On Tuesday, they’ll have a chance to finish their high school careers with a second state title. Photo courtesy of John Heffernan

Gilboy added, “There’s no pressure in those situations. I feel like where other guys get so (anxious) when they get down, I feel like with our group, we almost play better when we’re down. We fight back and come back.”

Now this group of boys-turned-young men get one more chance to play together.

“It’s all going to come to an end eventually anyway, we might as well win the very last game you can possibly play in high school baseball,” Swain said.

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