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Lacrosse has been a huge part of Bob Johnson’s life and even though he recently retired as the coach of the Waynflete boys’ program, the sport remains near and dear to his heart and will keep him busy in the years to come.
Johnson, who won 175 games and a state championship during his 24 years with the Flyers, has been around lacrosse long enough to remember playing with a wooden stick and now plans to devote his time to help this generation of player make the most of their future.
“I think the team’s in a pretty good place,” Johnson said. “My wife (Dinah) and I talked about there never being a good time to step away. You get great groups of kids and you want to stay with them. It can be 40 years and you never step away. I felt like now was the right time. I don’t think it’s completely sunk in yet. I think it’ll take the start of the school year in the fall, then in the spring, I think it will set in. There’s a great group of freshmen coming in next year. I’m excited for Dan Thomsen (a former player at Middlebury College and former assistant with the program who also teaches Spanish at Waynflete), who’s taking over for me, and how they’ll do in the future. I’ve really loved working at Waynflete. I was a (history) teacher there as well. I’m a strong believer in being a teacher and a coach so kids can touch base with you.”
Johnson had a terrific playing career, finishing ninth in the nation in scoring in 1977 with North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, N.Y., before taking his show to Wesleyan, where he met his future wife.
When Johnson started coaching at Waynflete, the year was 1988 and his first season was spent with the girls’ program. The following season, he took over the boys’ team and spent nearly a quarter century in that role.
Highlights were plentiful, but the unquestioned pinnacle came in 1997, when Waynflete defeated Kennebunk, 8-5, to win the Division II state championship (the Maine Principals’ Association started sanctioning the sport the following spring).
Two years later, the Flyers made a shocking Cinderella run back to the state game, winning at Yarmouth (9-7), Mt. Blue (26-13) and Brunswick (17-6) before losing to Cape Elizabeth, 11-3.
“Certainly 1997 was the first standout for me,” Johnson said. “There was a core croup of seniors who were wonderful kids. Then we had a group of sophomores. The previous year, we were 3-8. We struggled because those sophomores were freshmen. We took it on the chin. The next year, those kids played together as a team. I had an All-American in Clay Rockefeller, who was a terrific player. Aside from him, it was just a team. I’m most proud of that group. We weren’t the most talented bunch, but I think we were the best team. I hang my hat on doing it as a group, not doing it as individuals.
“Those sophomores went on two years later to make it to the state final. We had to play a very good Yarmouth team. Then we had to played undefeated Mt. Blue. The whole team stayed at a place in Sugarloaf that belonged to the family of one of the players. We practiced at (Carrabassett Valley Academy). We put Mt. Blue away in the first half. We went and played Brunswick and did a great job there. We played Cape at states and they had an amazing team. We had a fast break where you catch it and put it in the empty net, but their goalie dove across the crease and made the save and they went down and scored on us. That turned the momentum.”
Johnson coached both of his sons, Andrew and Sam, and both were in uniform when he won his 100th career game in 2001.
Despite playing with far smaller rosters than those of most opponents, Waynflete managed to post winning records more years than not and qualified for the postseason 13 of 15 years in the MPA era, although the 2012 squad fell just short with a 5-7 record.
“It was always a challenge,” said Johnson. “You look at the number of kids for programs we play against like Cape Elizabeth or Kennebunk. They get 65, 70 kids. My big number would be approaching 30. Per capita, we had quality players. We just had a much smaller number to choose from. My core group was always great. We had to play freshmen against juniors and seniors from other programs. That was hard, but at the same time, it made it interesting as well. I’m really proud of what we did over the years with what we did with such small numbers.
“Our competitiveness had a lot to do with the kids and how hard they worked. Hopefully we did a good job as a coaching staff getting them where they needed to be to compete.”
Along the way, Johnson did much to further the sport at the youth level. He helped form the Portland Youth Lacrosse Program in 1995, which eventually spawned programs in other communities.
Johnson, who was named Maine’s U.S. Lacrosse “Man of the Year” in both 1998 and 2006, is widely respected across the state and was certainly appreciated at Waynflete.
“Bob has been a fixture for a quarter of a century,” said Waynflete athletic director Ross Burdick. “He has shared his love of the game with hundreds of student-athletes. In addition to teaching the skills and finer points of the game, Bob also instilled in his athletes the values of hard work, character, teamwork, and respect. Bob was instrumental in introducing the sport of lacrosse to many youngsters in the Portland area. Bob will be missed at Waynflete as a valued history teacher and coach, but his passion for the game of lacrosse will live on in all those he has touched.”
Johnson has also stayed involved with lacrosse as a player, even into his 50s, for a team called Cloud Splitter (the English translation for the Iroquois word Tahawus for Mt. Marcy, the largest mountain in the Adirondacks, which literally splits the clouds with its high peak), and has found continued success in that realm also.
“When I first started playing again, my kids said, ‘When did the fastest game on two feet become the slowest game on two feet?!” Johnson said. “I started playing in 1998 in the Grand Masters division. We play in tournaments in places like Lake Placid, down in Florida. Grand Masters is 45 and older. As we got older, younger guys came in and handed it to us. Professional players were getting old enough to play in Grand Masters, so they created a new category of 50 to 55-and-above. They call that Super Grand Masters. For a while, I did both divisions. You come away from a weekend-long tournament and can barely walk. A couple Iroquois guys played with us. We won a championship in Lake Placid. When we went to Super Grand Masters, we won five years running. The World Games came up two years ago. I organized our group. We went (to England) and won in overtime against England. It’s been fun. I want to keep doing it as long as my body will let me. Someone once said lacrosse isn’t a lifetime sport, but I think we’ve proved that it’s not true at all.”
While Johnson is pleased to see how much lacrosse has grown in recent years, he is wary of the sport straying from its roots. At Wesleyan, Johnson majored in anthropology and wrote an honors thesis on the Iroquois, learning even more about what makes lacrosse special in the process.
“I’m a history person,” Johnson said. “I studied the Iroquois. They founded the game. It’s a very special game to them. It has spiritual meaning to them as well. I think we have to keep mind of that going forward. The popularity (of lacrosse) has been taken by the advertisers. There are almost cult figures now, the big stars. It’s a funny blend of lacrosse and a surfer dude attitude too. The advertising is a little edgy.
“I’m not surprised with the growth. I’m not impartial at all. It’s been a big part of my life. I did start playing with a wooden stick. The growth has been phenomenal in the last 10 years. That’s both tremendous for the sport and it also worries me. It’s growing so fast that we lose the connection with the roots of the game. The lacrosse community is a special community. If you’re a lacrosse player and you bump into another lacrosse player you automatically have something in common. I’m afraid of it growing so fast we lose the intimacy of that.”
While Johnson is no longer coaching at Waynflete, he plans to continue working with kids in a different role.
“I’ll do more coaching now,” Johnson said. “I’m not restricted by the MPA anymore. One of the things I think we really need to push is that while lacrosse has progressed in Maine and our best kids are going to good schools, the kids in the middle aren’t at the caliber they need to be. One of the things I’d like to do is to offer clinics to get ready to play at that next level. Kids go to clinics when they’re younger, then they think they’re done. Unless they’re on travel teams, they don’t see the next level. I’d like to offer clinics and workshops for kids in 9th, 10th, 11th grades, even 12th grade. It’s a combination of lacrosse skills, also strength and speed ability and quickness.”
The longer Johnson sticks around, the better it will be for the sport of lacrosse in Maine.
“You probably haven’t seen the last of me,” Johnson said. “I’ll probably turn up again.”
Bob Johnson has long been a fixture on the Waynflete sidelines. He recently announced his retirement after coaching the school’s boys’ lacrosse team for over two decades.