PORTLAND—When Dan LeGage came to Deering High School to become the school’s varsity boys’ basketball coach for the 2002-03 season, the school, almost 130 years old at the time, was desperately thirsting for its first state championship.
Flash forward a decade and the Rams have not one, but two.
Thanks in large part to the countless hours, blood, sweat and tears that LeGage put into the program.
Thursday, word broke that after 11 seasons at the helm, LeGage, the finest coach in program history, is stepping down after posting a superb record of 143-75, with those aforementioned two crowns, a third regional title and two Forecaster Coach of the Year selections.
LeGage, 40, said that he and his wife, Trisha, who already have a nearly 6-year-old son, Lucas, are expecting a second son this July. After making basketball his life for years, in-season and out, LeGage decided that the time had come to step back.
“I need to devote more time to being at home,” said LeGage, who lives in Gorham. “I need to be more available. Family comes first.
“I spoke to the team Tuesday and I think they understand. It’s sad. I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of wonderful kids.”
LeGage grew up in Portland and was a standout at Portland High for coach Joe Russo. LeGage went on to play for Dick Meader at the University of Maine-Farmington. There, LeGage was an All-Maine team selection in both 1993 and 1994. He graduated as the program’s fourth all-time leading scorer (1,368 points) and the leader in made 3-pointers (168). LeGage is also second in career steals, third in 3-point field goal percentage and fifth in assists. He was inducted into the UMF Hall of Fame last September.
When Mike Francoeur left Deering, after coaching the Rams to the 2001 and 2002 state games (an epic, heartbreaking buzzer-beater loss to Bangor the first year and a lopsided loss to Brunswick the following), LeGage, who had returned to Portland as an assistant under Russo and was part of a state championship team in 1999, was initially hesitant to make the move to the Bulldogs’ fiercest rival, but Russo helped convince him to jump at the opportunity.
“As much as I didn’t want to see him across town, I knew he would be a good teacher and coach,” Russo said. “I’m not surprised at all he was successful. He’s a student of the game. When he got into coaching, he worked equally as hard as he did as a player and as a player, he always gave it 100 percent on and off the court.”
With a bare cupboard, LeGage went 4-14 and missed the playoffs his first season and finished 7-12 with an agonizing loss to South Portland (which rallied late in the Western A preliminary round) his second year.
Everything changed in 2004-05, when Deering, after a 14-4 regular season, made a stirring and what was viewed at the time as a year-ahead-of-schedule run to the state final when it lost to Hampden Academy, 59-49, at the Bangor Auditorium, a game in which the Rams were in foul trouble almost throughout.
LeGage was first honored as Coach of the Year following that season.
History was finally made the next winter, when Deering, the heavy favorite coming into the year, went 17-1, returned to the state final, and this time had the answer, beating Hampden Academy in a rematch, 47-37, to finally place a Gold Ball in the school’s trophy case.
The second title took awhile as the Rams were ousted in the quarterfinals four years in a row before reaching the semifinals in 2011, losing to Bonny Eagle.
In 2012, Deering went all the way again, in memorable fashion, beating Bonny Eagle on Pat Green’s buzzer-beater in the regional final, before downing Hampden Academy (who else?) in the state game, 59-50.
“We had a lot of memorable moments,” said LeGage. “It took 132 years for the school to get the first (state championship). Six years to get the second. I was happy to be a part of it.”
“I thought (2012) was (Dan’s) best coaching job,” said Russo, whose Portland team handed Deering a decisive loss in that year’s regional season finale. “He somehow regrouped his team. They played solid basketball. He knew what to do come playoff time. He put on a coaching clinic and really showed his coaching ability.”
LeGage credited Russo, Meader, Rick Simonds and Roger Reed as his top mentors.
“I learned from all of them,” LeGage said. “I watched and studied them over the years. Everything they did, I tried to add my own flavor.”
After a 15-3 campaign this winter, the Rams were upset in the quarterfinals by Thornton Academy, 49-40, in overtime, in what proved to be LeGage’s swan song.
Over LeGage’s 11 seasons, Deering made the playoffs 10 times and averaged 13 victories a year, a model of consistency the coach told the hiring committee over a decade ago that he would establish.
“I wanted to build a program that didn’t have to rebuild,” said LeGage, who credited longtime assistants like Jon Bird, Brendan Conway, John Maloney, Larry Nichols, Josh Stowell and Todd Wing with much of the program’s success. “We wanted to be in the conversation at the top of the league every single year. I think we did a pretty good job. It was a decade of success. It was a mirror of the efforts of great kids who came through the program and bought in. I’m blessed to have coached with the people who worked with me. They’re an extension of my family. We didn’t have a lot of turnover.”
“Dan is as good as it gets,” said Deering athletic director Melanie Craig. “He set a legacy for Deering boys’ basketball. He will be missed, but we wish him and his family the best as he embarks on the next phase of his life.”
Craig said that Deering will open the position and that she expects several qualified candidates, both internal and external, to express interest.
As for LeGage, who will remain a science teacher at Deering, don’t be surprised if we hear from him again at some point.
“I’m looking forward to a time and an opportunity when I can return to coaching,” LeGage said. “I hope to stay connected to kids and the games. I’m passionate about the game and about helping kids.”
After 11 triumphant years, Dan LeGage is stepping down as Deering’s boys’ basketball coach.