Bangor resident Matt Stairs’ home run in the National League Championship Series and the John Bapst football team’s state-title win have been named as the top individual performance and team of the year in Maine, respectively, as part of the WZON/BDN Maine Sports Story of the Year in online voting.
Sometimes the best sports stories have little to do with a scoreboard or a timer.
For Easton High School senior Sean Daniels, victory has come in the form of extreme perseverance that has enabled him to come back from a horrific accident to take his place in the starting lineup of the school’s varsity basketball team.
After having his left hand and forearm get caught in a potato harvesting machine and subsequently amputated more than a year ago, the 6-foot-1 forward has been determined not only to resume a normal life but to continue playing the sports he loves.
That mission is ongoing, and the journey has been selected by Bangor Daily News readers and listeners of Bangor radio station WZON (620 AM) as the 2008 Maine Sports Story of the Year.
“He’s come through this adversity and shown how strong he is both physically and mentally,” said Easton boys basketball coach Travis Carter. “Everyone appreciates what he’s done.”
Daniels’ saga captured 35 percent of the votes cast in the closest balloting in the 11-year history of the award. The success of Maine natives at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, which included three gold medals and a bronze, was second with 34 percent.
More than 2,250 votes were cast in three categories, including the new awards of top individual performance and team of the year.
The top individual performance of 2008 was Bangor resident Matt Stairs slamming a game-winning, pinch-hit home run to lift the Philadelphia Phillies to a 7-5 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
That blast gave Philadelphia a 3-1 series lead, and the Phillies went on to eliminate the Dodgers and then best Tampa Bay to win the team’s first World Series title since 1980.
Stairs’ heroics earned 42 percent of the vote, topping runner-up Nate Warren, a Bucksport High football player who led the state with 2,420 rushing yards and scored 27 touchdowns as the Golden Bucks advanced to the Eastern Maine Class C championship game. Warren earned 30 percent of the votes cast.
The John Bapst of Bangor football team earned 54 percent of the vote as team of the year. The Crusaders lost their first game of the season in overtime, then ripped off 11 consecutive victories to win the school’s first Class C state championship since 1976.
Second in the team balloting was the Brewer girls softball team, which won the first Class A state championship in the program’s history. The Witches earned 31 percent of the vote.
Daniels defies the odds
Daniels was injured in early October 2007 while performing a rite of autumn in northern Maine — the annual potato harvest.
He subsequently was rushed to the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries, ultimately resulting in amputation.
Daniels soon returned to school, and to basketball, though he played primarily on the junior varsity last winter as he struggled to adapt to his new circumstances. He did join the varsity squad late in the season, and though he saw limited playing time, he did play briefly in Easton’s Eastern Maine Class D quarterfinal loss to Woodland at the Bangor Auditorium.
“It was one of the greatest feelings,” he said of that tournament experience.
Daniels’ story gained national media attention, and the lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fan later lived out a dream by attending the Kobe Bryant Basketball Academy last summer and meeting his basketball idol.
This fall he rejoined Easton’s soccer team, and the left fullback helped the Bears earn a trip to the Eastern D playoffs.
Now he’s starting at power forward on the varsity basketball team, averaging about 7 points per game and leading the team in rebounding — with one 14-rebound game already to his credit for the Bears, who are 4-2.
“He came back this year very positive, very excited,” said Carter. “I was a little worried at first that he would struggle with some of the things that he just couldn’t do, but he’s done well.
“He still gets frustrated at times, and that’s to be expected because he’s trying to play a two-handed sport with one hand.”
Daniels was fitted with a prosthesis over the summer but doesn’t use it while playing sports. Instead he has adapted, relying on his strength, jumping ability and right arm but occasionally using his left arm to steady the ball or during a crossover dribble.
“I’m used to it now,” said Daniels, who plans to study athletic training in college with an eye toward a career in physical therapy. “Playing a lot this summer and going out to L.A. really helped me a lot. I’ve learned to cope with it and not worry so much about what I can’t do and work on what I can do.”
Maine athletes had unprecedented success during the Summer Olympics, earning three gold medals in rowing and a bronze in swimming. Anna Goodale of Camden and Elle Logan of Boothbay Harbor were teammates on the championship-winning women’s eight crew, while Wyatt Allen of Portland earned a bronze in the men’s eight.
Veteran swimmer Ian Crocker of Portland returned to the medal stand, winning a gold in the 4×100 relay, while mountain biker Adam Craig of Exeter, race walker Kevin Eastler of Farmington and steeplechaser Anna Willard of Greenwood also competed in Beijing.
Other story of the year finalists were the University of Maine, Husson University and Maine Maritime Academy football teams each earning a postseason berth; the University of Maine men’s hockey team failing to make the Hockey East playoffs for the first time since 1996-97; and the retirements of several Maine basketball coaching legends, including Paul Vachon of Cony of Augusta, Dick Barstow of Katahdin of Stacyville, Gary Fifield of the University of Southern Maine, Dwight Littlefield of Valley of Bingham and Bob McShane of Calais.
Stairs’ way to heaven
When Stairs launched a 3-1 pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers’ reliever Jonathan Broxton deep into the night last October, he etched his named into Philadelphia Phillies history with the defining moment of his pro baseball career.
That homer capped off a four-run rally that gave the Phillies a come-from-behind 7-5 victory over the Dodgers in the pivotal fourth game of the National League Championship Series.
The victory gave the Phillies a 3-1 lead in the series, and they went on to eliminate the Dodgers in five games before going on to oust the Tampa Bay Rays in five games to earn baseball’s biggest prize.
For the 40-year-old Stairs, the home run that led to his first World Series ring was a high-water mark in a lengthy career that has been marked by dependable hitting — a .266 career average with 254 home runs — and a reputation as a solid clubhouse presence no matter the locale.
And there have been plenty of locales for Stairs, a New Brunswick native who has made 11 minor league stops, played professionally in Japan, and donned the uniforms of 11 major league teams.
Stairs and his family have called Bangor home in recent years, with Stairs occupying his offseason as an assistant coach with the John Bapst hockey team.
Warren’s football prowess was on full display throughout the 2008 LTC season, beginning with Bucksport’s season-opening win over John Bapst, when he rushed for 328 yards in the Golden Bucks’ 40-39 overtime win — and had a 91-yard touchdown run called back due to a penalty.
Warren’s combination of power and speed — he is the Class C state champion in the 100 — proved unstoppable as he averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game in leading coach Joel Sankey’s club through an unbeaten regular season and into the Eastern C final.
Other finalists for top individual performance were Ryan Gay of Pittston, who won the Maine Amateur Golf Championship and the Maine Junior Golf Championship; Ryan Martin of Maranacook of Readfield, named Mr. Maine Basketball after leading the Black Bears to their second Class B state title in three years; and Kyle Stilphen of Gardiner, who was named Mr. Maine Baseball after leading the Tigers to the Class B state championship.
A championship crusade
The John Bapst football program is not that far removed from the worst of times — a 41-game losing streak that ended in 2003.
But recent years have seen steady growth in the Bangor program, with the Crusaders’ 2007 run to the Eastern C final rekindling championship memories last experienced more than three decades earlier.
Graduation significantly changed the team, but a solid nucleus returned this fall to fuel expectations of another season of contention.
And the Crusaders delivered. With senior Derek Smith shifting from wide receiver to quarterback, coach Dan O’Connell’s club unveiled one of the state’s most diversified offensive attacks, featuring not only Smith but a bevy of skill-position players behind a rugged line.
That complemented an aggressive defense that helped John Bapst overcome an opening-night overtime loss to Bucksport to finish with a 7-1 regular-season record.
That was followed by playoff victories over Stearns of Millinocket and perennial power Foxcroft Academy, leading to a rematch against unbeaten Bucksport in the regional final.
This time John Bapst persevered, overcoming a strong opponent and inclement late-season conditions to earn a 21-14 victory and its first conference title since 1976.
A week later, the Crusaders traded in muddy terrain for the artificial surface of Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium and won it all with a 21-14 victory over favored Winthrop.
Smith went on to be named the LTC player of the year, while O’Connell earned the conference’s coach of the year honors for the second straight year in leading Bapst to an 11-1 record.
The Brewer softball team experienced similar success last spring, its 19-1 record capped off by a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Biddeford to become just the second school north of Waterville to win a Class A state championship in that sport.
Brewer had come close before, winning Eastern Maine titles five previous times before breaking through this year behind the pitching of sophomore righthander Melanie Judkins and a formidable yet youthful lineup.
Other team of the year finalists were the Calais-Woodland football team, which qualified for postseason play in its first year as a varsity program; the University of Maine football team, which advanced to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs; and the Husson University football team, which earned its first-ever postseason berth.