McAuley standouts Allie Clement, left, and Olivia Smith celebrate the Lions’ fourth consecutive Class A state championship (and sixth overall) in this file photo from 2014. McAuley, which was renamed Maine Girls’ Academy in 2016, announced Thursday it was closing its doors later this month.
There was absolutely nothing like it.
A visit to Catherine McAuley’s bandbox gym, especially during the Lions’ championship heyday, was a feast for the senses and a unique setting for a player, coach, fan or sportswriter.
In the wake of Thursday’s news that the school (now known as Maine Girls’ Academy) will be closing later this month, tears and sadness were the overwhelming response.
Which is the exact opposite of the joy that oozed from the gym stands over the past two decades.
Once upon a time, although not very long ago, if you wanted to see McAuley battle rivals Cheverus, Deering or South Portland, you needed to arrive before the freshman game, then keep your seat through that contest and the junior varsity game just to watch the varsity show.
And what a show it was.
From the buzz prior to the Lions taking the court, the anticipation in the gym during warmups, Max Freeman tossing lollipops to the crowd, Joe Kilmartin handling the microphone as only he could and Sister Edward Mary, always, serving as the center of attention, every McAuley game was an event.
And for good reason.
The fuss began in the magical winter of 2000, when Liz Rickett led an unheralded group of Lions on one of the most memorable playoff runs in state history, from the Western A preliminary round all the way to the state final, which McAuley lost to Mt. Blue, although that defeat was a mere footnote.
The Lions were on the map and when the nonpareil Sarah Marshall arrived a year later, the phenomenon (which included girls of all ages filling the stands, dreaming of one day suiting up for their favorite team) was underway.
McAuley fell in the state game again in 2001 (to Nokomis), but the coronation finally came in 2002 and the Lions repeated in 2003.
My first venture to the Lions’ Den came in December 19, 2003 when the two-time champs hosted Deering.
While the game was a classic (McAuley rallied late for a 60-55 victory) it was the noise, the energy and the joy that I found most mesmerizing.
At no other venue, did you feel so at home and welcome.
From “Walking Tacos” before the game to an invitation to fans of both teams to stay afterwards to eat and socialize, McAuley was about more than just basketball.
It was easy to get to know not only the players and coaches, but the families too and everyone made sure their guests felt welcome (and often left with full stomachs).
The program was blessed with great coaches, as Rickett, the Dynasty Creator, was followed by the late Wil Smith (whose smile never fades), Amy Vachon for one championship year in 2011, then Billy Goodman, a Deering graduate of Jewish descent who came to love everything about the Catholic school and gave every ounce of his heart and soul to lead the Lions to three more titles and keep them competitive even after the school ended its affiliation with the church in 2016 and enrollment continued to decline.
It wasn’t just the head coaches who left their mark. Linda Freeman, Julie Volger, Dawn Ross, Wade Millett, Peter Litman, Bill Whitmore and many others were every bit as dedicated, passionate and selfless and the Lions players were the beneficiaries.
And ultimately, the McAuley program will be remembered for the dynamic players and the big games they won.
While Marshall, Ashley Cimino, Alexa Coulombe and Allie Clement (the latter three were named Miss Maine Basketball), as well as Tara Beaulieu, Rebecca Knight, Victoria Lux, Olivia Smith, Abby Wentworth stole the majority of the headlines, it was players like Sadie DiPierro, Jackie Welch and “Molly McAuley” herself, Molly Mack, who exemplified the heart and grit that put the Lions over the top year after year after year.
The roars have faded and unless something dramatic happens in the days to come (there is a last-ditch effort underway to raise enough money to keep the school open), McAuley basketball will be a thing of the past, but what a relic it will be.
For everyone fortunate to enough to hear the walls vibrate after a clutch Clement or Welch 3-pointer or a DiPierro steal that led to a Smith layup or a resounding Coulombe blocked shot, for everyone who was lucky enough to have been greeted with a smile or a hug when they walked through the door and for everyone blessed enough to have been a part (even a tiny part) of the state’s finest girls’ basketball program over the past two decades, the memories (and the roars) will never die.