Clippers strike gold
BANGOR—For 44 long and lonely years, the 1968 Yarmouth boys' basketball team stood alone as the program's only state champion.
Friday evening, at long last, it got some company.
An undeniable, unforgettable group whose never-say-die attitude and unrivaled athleticism launched itself into the realm of legend.
Facing another history-seeking team in the Class B state final at the storied Bangor Auditorium, the Clippers continued with the recipe that's worked the past two weeks: Unleash a stifling defense, get an early lead and hold that lead for the better part of 32 minutes.
The plan worked for the most part Friday as Yarmouth raced to a 13-4 advantage behind the sizzling shooting of senior standout Josh Britten, but after Britten got his second foul midway through the first period, the sharpshooting Gardiner Tigers were able to rally and even took a short-lived lead early the second quarter.
But the Clippers simply refused to play from behind (they trailed for less than 1 of the tournament's 128 minutes) and soon took the lead for good. They were up by five points at halftime, then delivered a command performance in the third quarter, smothering Gardiner's offense, while unleashing senior Chris Knaub and junior Christian Henry as an offensive complement to Britten.
Henry's 3 as time expired in the third gave Yarmouth a commanding 50-34 lead, but per usual, the Clippers weren't about to make it easy on their coach or their avid followers.
The Tigers pulled to within eight points and when Britten got his fourth foul with five minutes to play, Yarmouth was at a crossroads, but this special group closed with a flourish and proved once and for all that they were without peer, pulling away for a 65-53 victory, earning the school's first Gold Ball since Lyndon Johnson was President and man had yet to walk on the moon.
Britten led all scorers with 29 points, Knaub added 14, senior Sam Torres was his usual all-over-the-place self and Henry, sophomores Nate Shields-Auble and David Murphy and freshman Adam LaBrie played their supporting roles to a T as the Clippers ended the year 18-4, sent the Tigers home at 19-3 and unleashed a celebration nearly a half-century in the making.
"We didn't have to talk about (1968) because everyone else was," said Yarmouth coach Adam Smith, whose blood, sweat, tears and determination built this program all the way up from the bottom of the standings to sample the sweet taste of ultimate triumph. "We have a winning tradition in Yarmouth and we wanted to be a part of it. There's no reason we shouldn't have been part of it. For the people who have lived here for years and years, they wanted basketball to make some noise. We've done that and we're proud of where we're at."
Long time in coming
The return to prominence of the Yarmouth program has truly been astounding.
In the late 1960s and for most of the 1970s, the Clippers were consistently one of the best teams in the former Class M and eventually Class C.
Yarmouth won the 1968 Class M state championship (beating Searsport, 83-62) and got back to the state final (Class C) five years later, but lost to Sumner (106-63, please see sidebar story).
After downing Gray-New Gloucester in the 1974 semifinals, the Clippers would go nearly three decades before winning another playoff game and only qualified for the postseason five times in the last 20 years of the 20th Century.
Yarmouth was able to defeat York in the 2003 preliminary round to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1978, but won just four times the following winter and in 2004-05, Smith took over as the Clippers head coach.
To say Smith's first two years were challenging would be the ultimate understatement as Yarmouth went 6-12 in 2004-05, then 1-17 in 2005-06.
Smith persevered and the program turned the corner the following winter, as the likes of Lucas Denning, Joe Dilworth and Johnny Murphy helped the Clippers win 12 games and make it to the quarterfinals.
Yarmouth got to the Cumberland County Civic Center for the first time in 2008, but was upset by Freeport in its first semifinal appearance since 1974.
Last season, the Clippers got all the way to the Western B Final, but worn out from a grueling semifinal round game versus Greely, they fell short against Cape Elizabeth, 61-47.
Yarmouth expected to compete this winter, but there wasn't anyone outside of the town (and frankly, very few within it) who thought the Clippers would still be playing on the second day of March on the biggest stage in Maine high school basketball.
Yarmouth produced 14 victories for the fourth time in five years and its four losses came by a combined nine points.
The Clippers opened with a 70-34 romp at Gray-New Gloucester. They then downed visiting Lake Region (85-40), visiting Wells (57-33) and host York (49-48). After a 46-42 setback at Falmouth, Yarmouth closed 2011 with a 65-35 home win over Fryeburg.
The new year opened 2012 with wins at Freeport (83-42) and at home over Greely (53-52) and Poland (63-56). After a 40-39 setback at Cape Elizabeth, the Clippers bounced back with a 52-45 win at Waynflete, then dominated visiting Gray-New Gloucester (81-38), host Traip (81-29) and visiting Freeport (69-40). After a 58-57 heartbreaking loss at Greely, Yarmouth won at Poland in four overtimes, 92-78 (behind 54 points from Britten), and held off visiting Cape Elizabeth, 58-52, before closing with a 46-43 overtime loss to visiting Falmouth.
The Clippers earned the No. 3 seed in Western B and dodged a major bullet when sixth-ranked Greely, their projected quarterfinal round foe, was upset by No. 11 seed Lincoln Academy in the preliminary round.
"That first round game could have been our toughest matchup," Smith said. "I think Greely was ready to make a run. I thought we were ready to make a run ourselves. As tough a game as it would have been, we would have been ready for whoever stepped on that (Portland) Expo floor."
Yarmouth would crush Lincoln Academy, 77-35, racing to a 27-4 lead after one period. The semifinals brought more of the same as the Clippers jumped out to a 15-0 lead over second-ranked Spruce Mountain en route to a 60-30 triumph.
The regional final win didn't come near as easily, but Yarmouth managed to become the first team to defeat top-ranked, undefeated Falmouth. The Clippers' 14-point halftime lead was cut to three in the final minute, but they dodged several bullets and celebrated a 56-50 victory.
Gardiner wrote an amazing turnaround story itself.
After winning just five times in 2010-11, the Tigers put everything together this winter.
Gardiner opened with wins over Oak Hill (98-18) and Maranacook (76-44). After a 64-53 setback at the hands of Medomak, the Tigers produced a 10-game winning streak, defeating Morse (55-40), Waterville (48-38), Oceanside (67-66), Mt. View (53-36), Winslow (50-48), Belfast (72-45), defending state champion Camden Hills (77-60), Leavitt (61-55), Nokomis (68-50) and Oak Hill (81-25). After a 60-44 loss at Maranacook, Gardiner took care of Lincoln Academy (51-48), Morse (56-38), MCI (80-54) and Leavitt (54-51) to finish 16-2, good for the No. 3 seed in Eastern B.
The Tigers then downed No. 6 Nokomis (56-47, in OT), second-ranked Medomak (57-46) and unbeaten, top-ranked MDI (70-58).
While Gardiner and Yarmouth had no basketball history, the schools had met twice previously in title games in the winter, as the Clippers beat the Tigers in both the 2001 (4-1) and 2002 (3-2, in overtime) Class B boys' hockey state finals.
Gardiner also shocked Yarmouth in last year's boys' lacrosse semifinals.
While Gardiner had the advantage of having played three regional tournament games at the Bangor Auditorium, Yarmouth was unphased by the new setting. The Clippers had an opportunity to practice in the building earlier Friday, then sat through the exciting Western B girls' state game (Presque Isle 49 Lake Region 47), soaking in the atmosphere.
"The kids came up early and shot around and walked around the place and got a feel for it," said Smith, who played in the Auditorium once upon a time for Nokomis and previously coached girls' teams there. "Sitting through the girls' game, they said, 'Coach, is it always this loud?' I said, 'You won't be able to hear me, boys.'"
Something certainly clicked as the Clippers never displayed a moment of panic and Britten, perhaps playing with a chip on his shoulder after not being named a Mr. Maine Basketball finalist earlier in the day, was on fire early.
Seconds into the game, Knaub, who had the game of his life with five 3-pointers in the regional final win over Falmouth, shot a long 3 which went in-and-out.
The Tigers then got the jump when senior Aaron Toman took a pass from classmate Jake Palmer and made a layup to hand Yarmouth only its second deficit of the entire tournament.
Then, Britten went on a personal 9-0 run to give his team a jump-start.
Britten tied the game with a jumper. hit a fadeaway jumper to put the Clippers on top, buried a 3, then drained a long jumper with a defender right in his face, making it 9-2 Yarmouth with 5:35 to go in the opening stanza.
"I love it here," Britten said. "Ever since we got here for shootaround, I felt good. It's a great shooting barn. It's so much better than the Civic Center. There's a couple leaks, but other than that, I love it. We prepare the same way for everybody. If teams can handle our pressure then we'll be in trouble, but we wanted a quick start."
After Toman ended the run with a jumper, Britten fed Henry for a layup and Britten sank a leaner for a 13-4 advantage.
"Josh can shoot anywhere," Knaub said. "He's that good a player. Shooting is second nature to him. Seeing him light it up here is no surprise."
"Josh came out and played like he does," Torres said. "It doesn't matter what venue he's in. It doesn't matter where he's playing. He's going to come out and he's going to carry us like he can."
"Josh had a pretty good tournament in the west, but to do what he did in the first half is a testament to the time and effort he put in," Smith added. "Those weren't lucky shots. He put himself in position to score those points. Gardiner's a great defensive team. He was just relentless on the offensive end."
Then, with 3:43 left in the quarter, Britten, whose play-at-one-speed-regardless-of-the-situation approach makes him prone to foul trouble, was whistled for his second foul and he had to take a seat for the rest of the period.
Gardiner took advantage.
First Toman made a jumper that hit the rim before dropping in. Toman added a pullup jumper to make it 13-8. With 2:30 left in the first, senior Alonzo Connor became the first Tiger not named Aaron Toman to score, as he made a free throw. Palmer added a layup to cut the deficit to 13-11.
"(Gardiner) shot well," Knaub said. "They're a great team."
After Clippers sophomore Nate Shields-Auble ended the 7-0 Gardiner run with a short jumper, junior Tyler Jamison made a leaner and Toman hit a jumper to tie the score with just under a minute to play.
"I expected (Gardiner) to make a run and they made a run with Josh on the bench," Smith said. "They're a good team and you don't expect to run away and hide in a state final. That was a good test for the guys on the floor without Josh and they played alright. It gave us some legs and an opportunity to play well in the second half."
Undaunted, Torres took the reins, drove for a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw to put Yarmouth back on top, 18-15, after one period of play.
Britten returned for the second quarter, but Palmer's 3 and a pair of free throws from senior rebounding machine Matt Hall gave the Tigers the lead for the second time, 20-18.
That would prove to be Gardiner's high-water mark.
After trailing for all of 20 seconds (making it a grand total of 52 seconds for the whole tournament), Britten tied the score with a runner and with 6:39 showing in the half, Britten stole the ball and made a layup to give the Clippers a 22-20 advantage.
A layup by junior Dennis Meehan tied the score, but Britten hit a pull-up jumper, sophomore David Murphy made a leaner and after a steal, Britten fed Torres for a layup (something that was a regular occurrence in the regional tournament) and it was 28-22 Yarmouth.
Again, the Tigers roared back on the strength of consecutive 3-balls from Palmer, but with 2:53 remaining before halftime, Britten made two foul shots and the Clippers had the lead for good.
Knaub got in the scoring column with a leaner off the glass and Britten banked home a shot of his own. After Toman drained a baseline jumper, Britten made one of two free throws to give Yarmouth a 35-30 halftime advantage.
Britten had survived the second period (and would do the same in the third) without picking up a third foul.
"I've been in foul trouble a lot, but it's a state final so emotions are running high," Britten said. "I knew I had to keep my head and calm down and stay collected. That's what I came out and did to the best of my ability in the second quarter."
Despite only giving the ball away three times, forcing 10 Gardiner turnovers and shooting lights out with Britten leading the way with 22 points, the Clippers hadn't been able to open up a bigger lead.
While that should have given the Tigers the edge heading for the second half, it was Yarmouth that adjusted its defense and seized firm control in the third period.
"I was pleased that when (Gardiner) made that run in the first half and I was looking at the guys, the only thing they were perplexed about was how they were playing defense," Smith said. "They didn't panic. They didn't worry about Josh having two fouls. We just had to get back to what we do. It took us 16 minutes. Once the guys settled in, they played a great second half."
Toman opened the second half scoring with a jumper 53 seconds in, but Gardiner wouldn't score again for over five minutes and by then, the Clippers had pushed their lead to double digits.
Britten got the run going by burying a 3. Knaub and Torres then culminated a pretty passing effort as Torres went up for a layup, saw that he had no shot and dished to Knaub at the last second for a layup, forcing Tigers coach Jason Cassidy to call timeout.
It didn't stem the tide.
With 4:47 left in the third, Knaub began to heat up, taking a pass from Britten and knocking down a 3-ball. Knaub added a pullup jumper to make it 45-32.
"Josh is a good player and he carried us in the first half, but we had to help him out and we did in the second half," Knaub said. "In the first half, we didn't buckle down and the defense wasn't as good as it could be, but we buckled down and helped him out. I decided I had to help out too. Josh had the team on his back, but nobody can do it alone. I needed to help him out."
"We just wanted to come in here and play our game," Torres said. "We didn't want to do anything special with Gardiner. They're such a good team and they're so strong and deep. We knew they had so many options offensively. In the first half, they were knocking down their shots from the foul lines and the corners. Coming out for the second half, we wanted to pick up the defense since they picked us apart a little bit. We made two major adjustments and we were able to pull through. We knew they'd come out and shoot lights out since they'd played here before. We were able to lock down on their outside shooting. We took away the post area since that's where they were picking us apart. We played better defense."
"I thought (Gardiner) shot better than I expected, but they got good looks in the first half," Smith added. "My defense wasn't what I expected. Those shots weren't there in the second half. We buttoned down our defense at halftime. That was more key than anything. Considering that Josh kept us in it in the first half, maybe we should have been up by more, but then we made that run in the second half. That stemmed from the defense. At halftime, the message was tighten up on D and that Josh wouldn't carry us in the second half and that the seniors had to pick it up."
Finally, with 2:03 remaining, Jamison hit a jumper, ending the 10-0 run and 5 minute, 4 second drought, but Britten made a layup after a steal and with time running down, freshman Adam LaBrie passed to Henry for a dagger of a 3, giving Yarmouth a commanding 50-34 advantage with eight minutes to play.
"Josh was so tired and in foul trouble, but he kept his composure," said Torres. "That's what our team's about. We had different players step up at different times. Christian hit a big shot. Chris hit two big 3s. A team effort got it done."
"Our defense was a little sluggish in the first half, but we shut them down in the third quarter," Britten said. "We talked at halftime about coming out and locking down on D. That what we had to do. That was the game right there. Chris had a big third quarter for us. He can turn it on at any second. I'm really happy for him. Christian can miss a couple shots, then knock down the biggest shot of his life. I'm proud of him."
"It felt pretty good, but at no time, did we think it was over," Smith said. "It's a lot better to be up 16 than what they were looking at."
Most on hand expected one final run from Gardiner and the Tigers didn't disappoint.
Toman made a leaner, converted an old-fashioned three-point play and hit a jumper and just like that, the deficit was down to 50-41 with 6:14 still to go.
After Henry momentarily restored order with a layup after a steal, Connor converted a three-point play with 5:03 remaining and worse for the Clippers, Britten was called for his fourth foul in the process.
Smith called timeout to settle his team and out of the break, Britten returned to the floor, to sink or swim one foul from disqualification.
The gamble paid off as Britten passed to Knaub for a 3 which rimmed around and in with 4:18 left. Knaub was fouled on the shot, but his attempt at a rare four-point play fell short when the free throw missed.
Shields-Auble was there to corral the rebound, however, but with 4:04 showing, Torres missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Yarmouth's defense was able to hold and with 3:20 to play, Britten was fouled and he made both shots. After a layup by Tigers senior Jake Lovely, Gardiner looked to pull within single digits, but Britten blocked a shot, Knaub snared the rebound and threw a long lead pass to a wide open Torres who sailed in for a layup and a 59-46 advantage with 2:38 to go.
"We wanted to keep our composure," Torres said. "That's what we were able to do because we emulate games like this in practice. We kept our heads. That's what won it for us."
"That fourth foul worried me, but I knew we'd pull it out," Britten said. "Gardiner played a great game. They wouldn't go away. Credit to them. They pushed us for 32 minutes. It was a great state final."
"We'd been in (a comeback) situation just last week with Falmouth," Smith added. "We've been tested in our conference. When you run through our conference and play the games we have, it's just another good team that will make runs and we needed to make a stand and we did. It's nothing we didn't expect."
Lovely answered with a jumper, but Knaub hit two free throws and Torres did the same, pushing the lead to 63-48 with only 1:27 remaining.
Toman never quit, scoring on a putback, but with 50.5 seconds to go, Murphy was fouled and hit both attempts. Toman made a 3, but that was as close as the valiant Tigers would come.
When the clock struck 0:00, at 10:33 p.m., Torres flung the ball in the air and the celebration began en masse.
The Yarmouth Clippers were state champions.
"I'm happy for everyone, especially coach," said Britten. "He deserves this. He's been the biggest influence in my life. I'm happy we could do it for him. It's absolutely incredible. It's awesome. I'm just ecstatic right now. After last year's Western Maine Final when we lost to Cape, we came together, especially me, Chris and Sam, and we said it wouldn't happen to us again. We know what it's like to not play well and lose your last game. It's our senior year. We really wanted to get it done."
"We can't believe it," Torres said. "It's so surreal. To win it with these guys, there's nothing more than I can ask for. These guys work hard, day in and day out. Down the bench too. People don't see it. It's the whole team. Making this a team win is what makes me feel so good about it. We worked so hard and we knew we could do it. No one else thought we could do it, but we came through and we won it. Everything we did all season was in anticipation for this. We knew it was our last game. We wanted to go out with a bang. We knew the history of one Gold Ball. Now there's two. I have nothing more to say but 1968 and 2012. It's an amazing feeling. These guys are just the best teammates I could ever ask for. It means so much for me as a captain. We're all so happy with each other. Throwing that ball up (at the end) was just a celebration for all the hard work we've done and happiness for coach because this is what he deserved too."
"I want to savor every moment," Knaub said. "This moment will last forever. I'll never forget it. It's our dream. When you cut down the nets, nothing compares to that. Everybody worked hard to rebuild the program. Last year's seniors helped us. It's been a building process and it finally came together tonight. We got support from all the alumni. That was great to see."
Britten was truly spectacular in his swan song, scoring 29 points, grabbing five rebounds, adding four steals and four assists and blocking three shots.
Knaub had 14 points (12 in the second half), a team-high seven rebounds, two steals, two assists and a block.
Torres finished with nine points and handled the ball beautifully, as he's done all season, especially in the tournament. Torres, heading to Bates College next year, also had five boards, two assists and two steals, earning some family bragging rights in the process.
Last June, Sam's older sister, Danielle, scored the winning goal as Yarmouth beat Waynflete, 9-8, in the Class B girls' lacrosse state final. With his sister in the crowd Friday night, Sam Torres enjoyed his moment in the limelight.
"It's added pressure to get that Gold Ball to impress her a little bit," Torres said. "She's going to be impressed. I know they have a bunch of lacrosse championships, but there aren't many Gold Balls. It's very special."
Henry added seven points (along with five rebounds and four steals), Murphy had four and Shields-Auble two (along with four boards). LaBrie also saw key minutes and was very poised during his time on the floor.
Yarmouth was outrebounded, 31-26, but had 13 steals and only turned the ball over seven times, a staggeringly low number considering the stakes.
"It was a great game today," said Smith. "It was nice to see a team effort. Josh was great in the first half, but he couldn't do it alone. It's a testament to what team means and what can take place if a team pulls and plays together."
The Clippers went 12-of-21 from the foul line, but hit their final eight attempts.
"We worked on free throws quite a bit this year," Smith said. "If they can knock them down, great. If not, they better get back and play defense. It's not something we worry about. They knocked down enough for us to have a Gold Ball right now."
This Yarmouth group is linked to those who came before, especially those who turned the program around in Smith's early years.
"When Lucas and Joe and Johnny were going through, it was difficult for them to get over so many hurdles of years of not winning, of trying to beat Cape and Falmouth and Greely and York and struggling in those games and finding their identity," Smith said. "Their work ethic, playing man-to-man, fullcourt all game, was incredible. When (this group) wanted to play Yarmouth basketball they knew what was in store for them. Our mindset is so much better now. These kids might not be as good, but they understand and have the work ethic. I don't have to get on these guys because they bring it. I have to find nights where I have them relax a little bit. At no time did we think a Gold Ball was in store, but that approach made this possible."
Every team hopes to peak for the postseason, but the way Yarmouth elevated its game the last two weeks was truly breathtaking.
"Coach sat us down at the beginning of the season and he said to us three captains, 'You have the opportunity to do something special,'" Torres said. "He worked us hard every single day. The first practice after the Falmouth game, he worked us hard. We worked hard the entire season."
"I talked to the guys at the end of the regular season and said, 'Boys, it's a whole new season and with that, comes different expectations and different goals and it's about to get a little more intense. Are you ready to take that challenge?'" Smith said. "To a man, those 13 guys looked me in the eye and said, 'We're ready, coach. We want to and we're going to.' How far that would take us I didn't know, but I knew those guys were ready to give. For us to take it to another level in the postseason, really propelled us to this night. It's hard to believe a team would actually peak in the last four games of the season. You can't script it, but they did it."
For Gardiner, Toman excelled with 26 points and four rebounds. Palmer added 11 points, Connor had four (with five rebounds), Jamison four (and three boards), Lovely four (with four assists) and Hall and Meehan two apiece. Hall was superb on the glass, hauling in a game-high 15 rebounds. He also had four assists.
The Tigers had 19 turnovers and made 5-of-7 free throws.
Yarmouth's hopes of returning to the state final and making it two in a row next year will certainly take a hit with the graduation of Britten, Knaub and Torres, along with Colin Guiney and Peter Zeitz.
The big three won't soon be forgotten.
"Me, Chris and Sam have been together our whole lives," said Britten, who is planning to play at Bates College next year. "We play for each other. It's probably the last time we'll play together in an organized sport. I'm really happy we could get it done."
"Sam, Josh and I will never play together again," said Knaub, who's bound for Bryant College, where he'll play soccer. "That's a heartbreaker, but to go out this way is something I'll always remember."
"Beating Falmouth was nice and gave us another week together," Smith added. "Tonight's game, when they were cutting down the nets, I thought this is the last time I'll be with the seniors. It was a joyous, but sad occasion for me."
The 2012-13 team will start to build around Henry, LaBrie, Murphy and Shields-Auble. You can rest assured that the Clippers have no intention of letting 39 seasons elapse before they get back to the state game and it's unlikely that it will take until 2056 for Yarmouth to hoist another Gold Ball.
"Next year, we'll start again, building relationships with another unit that will have their own expectations," Smith said. "I suspect our bench will be thin and we'll go six or seven deep. These guys understand what it takes to fill the shoes of the graduating seniors. Together, we'll be competitive again."
Regardless of what the future will bring, the boys of 2011-12 will forever live in legend.
"People told me when I first took the job that these guys wouldn't win and I took that a little personally and thought there was no reason why this town couldn't win in basketball," Smith said. "Size is not an issue. Shooting ability is not an issue. These guys have tremendous hearts and with that you can do anything. What it means to me to see the kids cut down the nets at the Civic Center and the Bangor Auditorium, I wish I had the knowledge and wisdom to put it in words, but I don't. I'll just remember seeing the joy on my players' faces."