August 19, 2019
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American Ninja Warrior finalist Jesse Labreck among latest UMaine Sports Hall of Famers

ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine was where Jesse Labreck and Mark Letendre followed their passions, making a positive and memorable impact on the institution and the state.

Now they are nationally prominent.

Labreck, a former Messalonskee High School of Oakland standout track athlete, and Letendre, a native of Manchester, New Hampshire, were among 10 people who were inducted into the University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame at the Black Bear Inn in Orono on Friday night.

Labreck won 12 America East individual championships and still holds the league’s indoor record in the pentathlon, the 60-meter hurdles and the long jump. She earned some time in the limelight on the American Ninja Warrior television show, becoming only the sixth woman in the first nine seasons to complete a qualifying course.

Letendre created Major League Baseball’s umpire medical service department in 2000 and serves as its director and only employee. He has a network of medical professionals who work with him and the umpires.

The other inductees were the late John Gillette, a basketball player who averaged 17.3 points and 10.2 rebounds and made just one error in 126 chances at first base for the baseball team including the 1964 College World Series team; two-time hockey captain Ray Jacques, who collected 128 points in 125 games; Ron Lanza, a prolific run producer on the baseball team and a co-Most Valuable Player on the football team; All-Yankee Conference baseball player and longtime Major League baseball scout Bill Livesey; record-setting women’s basketball point guard and current UMaine head coach Amy Vachon; Phil McGeoghan, the school’s fifth-leading receiver in receptions (151) and receiving yards (2,343) and the school’s high jump record-holder; three-time Yankee Conference 880-yard run champion Will Spencer; and the 1964 University of Maine baseball team that finished third in the College World Series.

Labreck, who recently reached the Las Vegas finals of American Ninja Warrior for the third straight year, said throughout her college career she always dreamed about being in the UMaine Sports Hall of Fame.

“It means more than I can express,” she said.

“I am super grateful and very honored.”

She said she chose UMaine over other schools because coach Dave Cusano allowed her to try different events and evolve into them rather than forcing her to stick to a couple of events.

“I wanted to experience different things and he gave me those options. I love to compete and I loved bettering myself in each event,” she said.

Her experience on American Ninja Warrior, which involves a grueling obstacle course, “completely flipped my life. It’s not something I expected. People I’ve never met before come up and talk to me on the street.”

The 28-year-old now manages a Ninja Warrior gym in Illinois and her fiance, Chris DiGangi, is a coach there.

The 61-year-old Letendre, who lives in Phoenix, said he followed in the footsteps of his mentor, late longtime UMaine trainer Wes Jordan.

“He was the visionary. He made people realize the importance of having a good sports medicine staff,” said Letendre. “You can’t compete without one.”

Letendre spent eight years as the trainer for the New York Yankees and 14 more with the San Francisco Giants before creating the umpires health services department which includes every aspect of health including nutrition, bounceback from injuries and addressing the wear and tear on their bodies.

“I promise them quality of life after they leave the game. The use and abuse on their bodies puts 10 years on their biological age. They travel every three days and are in different hotel rooms all the time The (physical) trauma accumulates,” said the man they called “Rookie.”

Carl “Stump” Merrill, the former UMaine catcher and football player and longtime manager, coach and player development man in the New York Yankees organization, said the 1964 baseball team was special.

“I’m not sure people realize what we were fortunate enough to be able to do. It’s going to be a long time before it happens again. It won’t happen in my lifetime although I hope it does,” said the 74-year-old Merrill. “Jack Butterfield was the coach of the year, Joe Ferris was the College World Series Most Valuable Player and Zippy Thompson was on the all-tournament team.

“It is very special because we were pillars of the baseball program at the University of Maine,” said Merrill, who is now retired.

UMaine went 3-2 in the College World Series.

“It was a big deal. It was a special team,” said former shortstop and football quarterback Dick DeVarney. “We had a lot of sophomores and a lot of us came from small schools. We didn’t know any different.”

Jacques had the distinction of being that last captain for Jack Semler and the first captain for the late Shawn Walsh, who went on to win two NCAA titles.

Although wins were few and far between in his four years Jacques, now a successful financial advisor, said, “I used that to springboard me into business. I had that desire to win and it was contagious when I went into business. It actually helped me.”

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