40 years later, state champ Bobcats still draw hometown crowd
ALLAGASH, Maine – It’s been 40 years, but Starr McBreairty Goodridge can still sink the hook shot. Goodridge was back in her old gym shooting hoops at the former Allagash Consolidated School over the July 4 weekend at a reunion with her fellow Bobcats and their fans to recall the glory days of basketball in one of the state’s smallest towns.
In 1976 Goodridge was part of the Allagash Lady Bobcats’ basketball team that went from a 1 and 15 season the previous year all the way to the Maine Class D Championship the next two years.
“Our games were really events for the entire town,” Goodridge said. “When you played for Allagash, you were playing for the whole town. Everyone was part of it.”
The population of Allagash in 1976 was around 800, according to Darlene Kelly Dumond, co-captain of that championship team and current manager of the town’s only diner, Two Rivers Lunch. So limited was the pool of potential players in the 1970s that coach Leroy Marquis was able to employ a Maine Principals’ Association rule that allowed eighth-graders to play on varsity teams in schools with low enrollment.
“I was in eighth grade, and my dad was working at the lumber camp in Musquacook,” former Bobcat Kadi O’Leary said. “Mr. Marquis came up to see him and told him, ‘I’m going to make a star out of your daughter,’ and my dad said right back, ‘She walks like a baby moose, good luck with that.’”
Marquis, who traveled from North Carolina to the reunion, said O’Leary turned out to be the strongest player he ever coached, scoring 13 points in her first varsity game at just 13 years old.
“I had to be strong,” O’Leary said with a laugh. “Because I was not that coordinated.”
On Sunday, the Bobcat’s old gym — now the town’s community center — was decked out in the team’s red and white colors, with tables covered in old news clippings, varsity jackets, duffle bags and the two gold balls won in 1976 and 1977.
“The gym does not look any different,” Marquis said. “It feels great to be back.”
Picking up her old letter jacket, Dumond put it on.
“Look, it still fits,” she called out. “Well, almost — not so much over the boobs now.”
Dumond’s co-captain Bonnie Hafford arrived, draped in the basketball net she had taken off the backstop in 1976 after the team defeated Buckfield High School 57-43 to clinch the championship. Marquis remembered putting Hafford in for that championship game.
“We went for three quarters with the score going back and forth, and I said I could not take it anymore,” he said. “Buckfield had this really good point guard, and I told Bonnie, ‘I don’t care if you score another point. You just keep her from scoring any more.’ And it worked.”
Described in media reports of the day as “plucky” and “scrappy,” the Bobcats achieved near folk hero status in Maine, according to BDN sports writer Larry Mahoney.
“This tiny school winning championships,” Mahoney said. “It was a special time.”
Girls varsity basketball began in Allagash in 1973 under Clara McBreairty, a teacher at the school who had played ball at the old Fort Kent State Teachers’ College.
“The girls did not know one thing about it, and we really started from scratch,” McBreairty, 87, said at the reunion. “I remember they gave it all they had.”
Her friend Faye Hafford arrived at the reunion with copies of her book “Bobcat Power,” a history of high school sports in Allagash, to sign for the team members. The book is also available directly from Hafford at the community’s library.
Marquis, who was already coaching the boys’ team, took over the team in 1975. According to Dumond, things were a bit tougher under his leadership.
“If we did not listen to him he would toss chalk at us, and he was always breaking his clipboard over his knee,” Dumond said, her arm around the former coach. “I remember the first pre-season game halftime with coach: He was not happy with us, and we all started crying.”
That was a new experience for Marquis.
“I was used to coaching the boys,” he said. “There was no crying in the boys’ locker room.”
The women all agreed Marquis was hard on them, but they were quick to say it was a “tough love” style that made them better players and that got them to multiple tournament games and the two gold balls.
Off the court, the support from the loyal Bobcat fans was just as important, Dumond said.
“Every home game the bleachers were full and chairs lined up around the gym were full,” she said. “For away games, the entire town emptied out. I mean emptied — everyone traveled to our games.”
Designated “super fans” and honorary Bobcats Leitha Kelly — Dumond’s mother — and her pal Penny Kelly made sure the girls never went hungry and kept them well supplied with freshly baked whoopie pies and lemon-filled cookies. Along with the treats, Penny Kelly is also remembered for supplying the team’s only technical foul one game, though under what circumstances is up for debate.
In Penny Kelly’s version, someone handed her a whistle, which she blew with great enthusiasm during a particularly exciting moment in the game.
“The ref stopped the game and gave the team a technical because I blew a whistle,” she said. “The other team got to go to the line and make a foul shot, but it was OK — they were a bad team, and they missed.”
In another version of the infamous technical, a former player said Penny Kelly grew so enraged by what she saw as unfair refereeing during the game that she stomped to the sidelines, took off her glasses and offered them to the referee, saying, “since you can’t see, you must need these more than me.”
For her part, Penny Kelly just smiled when asked which was true.
“Oh, these stories,” Dumond said with a laugh. “They just keep growing and growing.”
Lloyd Soucie of Fort Kent was one of those referees back in the 1970s, and after hearing about the reunion late in the day Sunday, he jumped in his car and drove the 35 miles to Allagash to attend.
“You knew coming up here that Leroy [Marquis] would have his team ready,” Soucie said. “This was a great team, and I just had to come up today to say hi.”
“He really came back to apologize for all those bad calls,” one longtime Bobcat fan standing nearby joked.
Looking back, Goodridge said at the time she’s not sure the team really appreciated what they had accomplished winning those gold balls.
“It really was quite the thing,” she said. “There were only 33 students in the whole high school that year we were state champs, and along the way we played and beat state championship teams from schools bigger than ours in the regular season.”
It was not unusual, she said, to be on the bus traveling to away games for six hours at a time in all kinds of weather, including snowstorms, and often staying in the homes of rival team members.
The players recalled their bus driver Jean Walker, now deceased, who always got them where they needed to be. Part driver, part den mother, Walker always brought a guitar along for road games and wrote several original songs for the team.
Dumond had a recording of one of those songs. On Monday the women clustered around an old cassette tape player to listen to it. The music eventually gave way to the sound of dribbling balls as the Bobcats’ took to their old floor to see if they still had what it took.
It took a few practice shots, but soon more balls than not were swishing through the net as the woman took turns passing and running layups.
“Basketball — it was in our blood,” Dumond said after sinking several shots in a row. “Back when we were on the team, we played anyone we could to practice.”
“People would come off [from canoeing the Allagash] River, and you’d challenge them to a game,” Marquis said with a laugh.
“We sure did,” Dumond said. “We played the Army Corps of Engineers when they were here surveying [the area] for the Dickey Lincoln dam [and] we told them they could not build it if we won.”
The young team beat the engineers in that game, she said.
“So, people can say what they like, but we stopped that dam from being built,” Dumond said.
“They had such heart,” Marquis said, watching his old team on the floor. “They had a real fire about them, [and] they still have it today.”