BANGOR, Maine — The west wall of Red Barry Gymnasium is adorned in both simplicity and complexity, its fill of championship banners reflecting nearly a century of athletic success stories at Bangor High School.
From the Rams’ 1926 boys basketball team to the 2015 girls soccer team, nearly 100 banners reflecting state championships and the 1975 New England title for boys swimming are on display — with one honoring Bangor’s 2016 baseball state championship soon to be raised as well as another for a 1923 boys basketball state title recently discovered on the Maine Principals’ Association website.
In fact, the west wall alone can’t hold them all, so the most recent banners have been placed near the ceiling along the top of dividers that separate the individual basketball courts within the gym.
“There’s no other wall in the state that looks that impressive and that has so many banners hanging on it,” said Joe Johnson, who has taught at Bangor High School for the last 16 years and coaches the Rams’ varsity girls soccer and girls basketball teams.
“Without question the bar’s been set pretty high because we’re not hanging Eastern Maine banners up there. But it’s nice to point up to them and be able to tell the kids what goes into them and how special they really are because they’re not easy to get.”
While the banner-filled wall reflects the legacy of Bangor’s athletic program, it also can motivate current and future student-athletes, such as those who turned out for the first practices of the new fall sports season.
“Just looking up and seeing how much history our high school has, it’s great to be able to try and contribute to it,” said George Payne, a three-sport athlete at Bangor who played second base on Bangor’s third-straight Class A baseball state championship team last spring and now playing his senior year of soccer for the Rams.
“Knowing that you could be a part of something so special that lives on in one of those banners and be able to contribute to part of the great wall of history of all those championships, it’s crazy.”
Coaching stability breeds trusting culture
The oldest banner on display honors the 1926 boys basketball team, which shared the state title that year with South Portland as no game was played between the two to determine a single champion, according to the Maine Principals’ Association website.
The next two banners were won during the 1940s, followed by five more during the 1950s and one in the 1960s.
The expansion of sports offerings — particularly on the girls side — and the introduction of postseason play based on Heal Points helped to create many more opportunities to win outright state championships, and the school claimed 16 state championships and the 1975 New England title in boys swimming during the 1970s, followed by 19 banners during the 1980s, 20 during the 1990s and 21 during the first decade of the new millennium.
Bangor has captured 14 state championships so far this decade.
State championship banners have been earned in 13 different activities, led by boys swimming with 27 state titles and one New England crown, girls’ swimming with 19, boys basketball (13), baseball (12), and boys track and football (six each).
And while each banner has its unique history, those familiar with the program see some common denominators in many of those title runs, particularly coaching longevity and a focus on the team concept.
The most successful of all the Bangor High School coaches was Phil Emery, who competed on the Rams’ first state championship boys swimming team in 1964 and returned to the school five years later to guide that same program to 26 more state championships before retiring in 2015.
Other major sideline influences include former baseball coach Bob Kelley and former boys basketball coach Roger Reed (eight state championships each), former girls swimming coach Robby MacDonald (six state titles) and current girls swimming coach Cyndi Howard (five state titles) as well as former football coaches Gerry Hodge and Gabby Price.
“I think it started back with coach Hodge and coach Price and coach Emery, but certainly through coach Kelley and coach Reed,” said Steve Vanidestine, who first entered Bangor High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1967 and has served as the school’s athletic administrator since 1984.
“I think what they built was something where kids want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. It wasn’t about them, it was about being part of a team.”
As was the case with Vanidestine, Emery and Price, numerous Bangor coaches got their start as student-athletes at the school — a group that includes baseball coach Jeff Fahey, a 1983 graduate who is 10-3 while representing his alma mater in state championship games.
He went 2-1 as a player, helping the Rams win state titles in football (1981) and baseball (1982), then went 4-1 in state finals as an assistant baseball coach under Kelley and now is 4-1 in 16 years as the head coach.
“If you look at the number of banners and the coaches who coached them, longevity in the coaching staff has been a key to a lot of it,” said Fahey. “Between Phil Emery and Bob Kelley and Roger Reed, that’s a lot of championships, and those guys were here a long time. You don’t have a lot of coaches coming and going.”
Such consistency throughout coaching staffs translates into program stability, Fahey added.
“Fred Lower’s been my JV coach for 16 years, and I think everybody I’ve had except for three kids all played for Fred at some point,” he said. “He always works on making kids accountable — if you don’t show up and work hard at practice, you’re not going to play; if you don’t get the job done in the classroom, you’re not going to play — and I think that carries over when they get to us. They realize they will be held accountable.”
With that accountability has come a willingness to accept what’s best for team cohesion.
“It is a little different than it used to be,” said Fahey. “We’ve spent a lot of time the last two years in particular talking about knowing what your role is and accepting it, and that just because you might be the second guy off the bench, that doesn’t mean your role isn’t important. We’ve spent quite a bit of time instilling that attitude in our players.
“We had 85 kids on the football team when I was playing for Gabby, and every single kid felt like he was an equal. It wasn’t just the first 11 who were playing, all 85 felt like they had some value. I think that was something that Gabby did better than anyone, motivating each and every kid on the roster,” he said.
The team-first approach also requires an element of trust among players, parents and coaches.
“When we meet on Sunday [before preseason] with the parents,” said Vanidestine, “the first thing I ask is, “Would you do me a favor? I’m asking for your trust. We’re going to be with your sons and daughters, we’re going to make mistakes, but we’re trying to get the most out of them without going over the line. If you go over, you’re wrong, but if you don’t get near there, then you’re not doing your job as much as you probably should to win.
“I don’t want to win at all costs,” added Vanidestine, who has witnessed 66 state championships as athletic administrator and 83 overall including his time as a teacher and coach. “But I’ll tell you this, our kids have trusted us and believed in us many times over the years when I’ve seen us win games we shouldn’t have won because the kids believed they could win.”
Of course, there are many around the state who believe Bangor should win plenty of state championships because it boasts one of the state’s largest school enrollments with about 1,175 students last year.
Bangor athletic staff members don’t disagree.
“I said to someone 16 years ago, ‘It doesn’t matter who’s the coach, Bangor should make the playoffs every year,’” said Fahey. “I believe that. How far you go in the playoffs might have something to do with coaching, but it’s the kids who play the games, and we do have a big number of kids to draw from.
“But there are other schools that have big enrollments but who aren’t as successful as we’ve been, so I think there’s something to say for the quality of coaches and the quality of kids and the quality of programs that we have,” he said.
Yet there are newer challenges. Some are faced by every school in Maine, such as shrinking enrollment, competition from more varsity sports, the advent of social media, increasing family and work obligations, evolving parental influences and increased individual expectations based in part on participation in offseason programs.
There’s another change more demographic in nature that’s fairly unique to Bangor, at least in the Class A ranks.
As the state’s population has migrated south, Bangor has become the northern outlier in the state’s large-school world, meaning additional time spent traveling to southern Maine in search of like-sized opposition.
“It’s not easy being a high school athlete, especially if you’re in northern Maine traveling like we do,” said Johnson, whose daughter played on Bangor’s 2011 state championship girls soccer team and whose son also played sports for the Rams. “We’re really getting a taste of what Presque Isle and those schools up north have been doing for years. To maintain that you’ve got to have very disciplined kids who are good at time management.
“The grind of being a student-athlete is tough now,” he said.
But Johnson sees the travel required for road games in the Lewiston, Brunswick and Portland areas as competitively beneficial — and in soccer he’s got the statistics to back that up with five Eastern/Northern Maine championships in the last six years and two state titles.
“We started winning when we started going down there,” he said. “In soccer we started taking our preseason down there, and that’s when we started competing. The thing that equalizes it a bit is they have to travel up here now, too, but Bangor kids always travel. When we get on the bus, we don’t talk about travel. It’s just part of the day, part of the fun.”
That travel also will continue to be part of the road map to any additional banners as new Bangor teams seek to add their presence to the gymnasium wall.
“I guess there are really high expectations for us because the school has had such good success,” said Payne. “I don’t think it’s anything like win or else, but definitely there’s a certain expectation that we’ll go out and compete to be successful.”