Phrases such as “storybook season” and “once in a lifetime” get thrown around as much as a baseball during infield drills, but for members of the Bangor Senior League team, those phrases are not only apropos, they may actually fall short in fully conveying the uniqueness of its 2010 season.
“Absolutely, words can’t describe it. Nothing comes even close to that experience,” said center fielder Christian Corneil. “We had such a great group of guys and it was such a special experience for all of us.”
The team that came one strike away from elimination in its own district playoffs wound up one win away from the Senior League World Series title and nearly ran the table by using its experience, raw talent, teamwork, and confidence.
“I’ve been around baseball 50 years and played on and coached a lot of championship teams, but I’ve never been involved with a group like these guys where everything just clicked,” said head coach Ron St. Pierre, who was taking his fourth Bangor team to the Senior League World Series in the last five years. “It was an unbelievable year for us.”
That unbelievable year continues with more acclaim as the Bangor team’s improbable run to the Series title game was a runaway winner in polling as the WZON/BDN Maine Sports Story of the Year. The poll was conducted on the BDN and WZON radio of Bangor websites along with Crusader Communications, a Bangor-based production company that produces the Sunday Sports Page on ABC-7 TV of Bangor.
Sunday’s show featured a sports year in review.
In two other polling divisions, University of Maine distance runner Riley Masters was selected as the year’s top athlete and the varsity football team from Stearns High School in Millinocket, which won an Eastern Maine championship despite being the state’s smallest football-playing school, was picked as the year’s top team.
Bangor went 4-2 in the World Series and handed the first loss of the season to a West Region title team from California sporting a 19-0 record when it squared off with the local nine. And although the last chapter of Bangor’s baseball storybook season ended with an 8-1 loss to Aruba, it was a season more historic and successful than any other.
In six previous Series appearances, Bangor teams had never managed to win more than one game each time.
“I think this was the year for us to certainly win more than one game because we had an experienced pitching staff and a solid infield and outfield,” said St. Pierre, who has been coaching baseball since 1979. “They felt very confident and that confidence was evident to us. You could feel it.
“I hate to say this, but we did less coaching than we have in previous years because they were on a streak and you just didn’t want to mess with it. The chemistry was so good, the kids were even coaching each other in the dugout now and then.”
Not bad for a team fighting its way out of the losers’ bracket in the District 3 Tournament to secure the automatic home-team spot in the Series.
“That loss was the key game for us. After losing to them, we were all in sync,” said center fielder Christian Corneil. “I was with (Senior League All-Star teammate) Josiah Hartley after that game and we were sitting on his couch talking about how we had no business even being here. I think that took a lot of the pressure off.”
“I don’t even know where it came from. We’ve never had so much chemistry on a team,” Corneil added. “We lost that first game to Brewer and it was kind of a shock. It really slapped us into reality. From that game on, we were really focused.”
Bangor’s group of 15- and 16-year-olds included 10 returning players from the 2009 Series team and that experience showed. Bangor won a rematch with Brewer to qualify for the Series as the local host team and went on to knock off teams from Canada, Italy, Texas (also defending Series champs), and California to advance to the championship game and a national TV appearance on ESPN.
“A lot of the kids kept saying they were going to win it this year, but you don’t really pay a lot of heed to that,” St. Pierre said. “But this team has so much confidence, it was infectious. I never thought at any point we were going to lose.”
Corneil said the experience has continued to reverberate even months later.
“I went to Florida two weeks after to a Red Sox game and I wore my jersey to see if anyone would notice. One guy noticed me and said he watched us on ESPN,” he said. “That was so cool.”
Athlete of the year
Former Bangor High star runner Masters ran away with top athlete honors with some cyber ballot-stuffing that resulted in multiple voting and a final tally of 7,420 votes for a whopping 79 percent of the vote. That outpaced second-place finisher Phil Frost, the leading scorer for Bangor’s soccer team, who finished with 1,754 votes and 19 percent of the voting.
“I could tell I had some people who boost me who know their way around IP addresses,” said Masters with a chuckle. “It’s kind of cool, I guess. I’d say I’m flattered and embarrassed all in one. I’d rather win fair and square and it’s a little embarrassing that people are willing to go to those lengths.”
The BDN and WZON were aware of the multiple voting for Masters, but used the voting as a guide for its selections and ultimately made the final decision for the winners.
“After discussion with staff members of WZON and the BDN we decided that Masters should still win the individual performance despite the ballot stuffing,” BDN sports editor Joe McLaughlin said. “It’s very rare for an athlete from the state of Maine to run a sub-4 minute mile and Masters was also the first-ever runner to accomplish the feat at the University of Maine.”
Masters, a UMaine junior became the first Black Bear runner to break the 4-minute mile barrier when he clocked a 3:59.97 on Feb. 13. He later lowered that time to 3:59.07, competed in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships for the second time in his career, and was named an All-American.
“It’s been a great year with a lot of ups and downs. It’s been a year I’ll never forget,” Masters said. “Breaking 4 minutes is the biggest thing to me. Personally, I started running my first year of high school and I always thought of it as a potential goal and it really is a magical barrier in running. It came a lot sooner than I thought.”
It was also vindication and rejuvenation for an athlete who battled debilitating knee inflammation and considered quitting as a competitive runner last year.
“It happened last February and some days I just completely forget I’ve done it, but when I do think back to it, I still get the excitement and natural high from thinking about it,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier. It’s magical barrier in running.”
Team of the year
Stearns, which went undefeated during the regular season en route to an East Class C title before losing in the state game, got 337 votes (43 percent) in online voting to outdistance runnerup Bangor High boys soccer, which went unbeaten and won the Class A state title and garnered 241 votes (31 percent).
The Minutemen made the run to the state-game with an unbeaten record. A nucleus of players, led by seniors Jared McGreevey, Billy Eurich and Charlie Tapley, was unbeaten as a middle school team in eighth grade and used that foundation for its successful 2010 season.
Other candidates for story, individual and team honors were:
Story: Seth Wescott defends his Olympic gold medal in snowboard cross with a come-from-behind win; a resurgent UMaine men’s hockey team, led by Hobey Baker Award finalist Gustav Nyquist, advances to the Hockey East championship game, losing to eventual NCAA champion Boston College in overtime; and the Alfond Foundation donates up to $5.5 million as UMaine raises money to renovate Alfond Arena and retrofit Memorial Gymnasium and the field house.
Individual: MMA running back Jim Bower, with 1,916 yards, leads the nation in rushing for the second straight year; sophomore forward Gustav Nyquist of the UMaine men’s hockey team, the top scorer in NCAA Division I, is one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award; and Matt Stairs, a resident of Bangor and a member of the San Diego Padres, sets the major league baseball career record for pinch-hit home runs.
Team: The Bangor boys soccer team goes undefeated at 17-0-1 and earns the state Class A title with a 3-2 victory over Portland; the Fort Fairfield girls basketball wins the first state basketball title, boys or girls, in school history; and the Bowdoin field hockey team wins its third NCAA Division III national championship in four years.