Wildcat Basketball The Early years
The Aroostook League and the Sixty’s
I have enjoyed reading Dick Graves articles on basketball and thrilled that he has asked me to write a column. During my research of 1000 point scorers at Presque Isle High I stumbled on to some interesting history. It was a pleasure to uncover data that substantiated the fact that Ralph Day who played in the early to mid 50’s and Barney Smith in the 60 have both attained the 1000 point plateau. Ralph, who played center, was an outstanding big man with a variety of moves and a devastating hook shot that also allowed him to set the single game scoring record at PIHS of 46 points. Smith was a point guard who attained the 1000 point total without the benefit of the three point line. It is also noteworthy that Day and Smith scored their 1000 points while playing three years on varsity. It was rare if ever that a freshman would play varsity basketball in that era. Smith was an excellent perimeter shooter and very adept a taking the ball to the basket against the taller opposition and finish successfully. Barney went on to play freshman ball at Duke University and started at second-base on the varsity baseball team for three years. When addressing who scored the most points in one game for Presque Isle High School there is one name that is overlooked. During the 1959-60 season Kathy Ranney scored 56 points on Feb. 9th vs. Limestone. That same season Colleen Carter had scored 51 points for the Wildcats. When this game was played the earlier version of girls basketball was played, which meant that there were two players for each team on each end of the court and two players for each team that were allowed to play full court.
The Aroostook League
County basketball featured the Aroostook League for 35 years. The league was organized during the fall of 1925. During the first five years Houlton dominated by winning four championships. Presque Isle under Coach Bill Hanscom started its long dynasty of title basketball during the 1930-31 season. During an 18 year span under Coach Hanscom, from 1931-48 the ‘Wildcats’ one 12 titles outright and tied for 2 others. During his 26 years as basketball coach Hanscom attained a 350-155 record and became one of the most respected high school coaches in the State of Maine. After the ’48 season other schools began to be more competitive as a result of good building programs. Fort Fairfield, under Coach Ken Clark enjoyed several years of success in league play. The Tigers one the title in 1946, tied for the title with Caribou and Presque Isle once each. Caribou won its first title in 1950 and just missed a second one in 1951. From 1954-60 Caribou was one of the most feared teams in the league under Coach Ed Walsh. In those days when you thought of County Basketball you thought of Bill Hanscom and Ken Clark. Ralph Day as mentioned earlier held the league record for most points scored in one game that was broken by Paul Davenport of Houlton who scored 50 points vs. Washburn in 1956. Pete Kelley of Caribou broke Davenport’s record by scoring 56 against Presque Isle during the 1957-58 season. Kelley also set the single season record for most points scored in league games 273 (accumulated over 10 games). The Vikings also held the single game scoring record of 112 points set in 1957.
The League folded with the advent of the Heal point system. The main purpose of high school ball was to make the tournament especially for the ‘L’ schools. In order to do that they had to play the best schedule possible.
During the 40’s and early 50’s the County M & S tournament was held at the Cunningham School gymnasium. When the new tournament qualifying format (Heal Points-used it to determine seedings and byes) was put in for the 1948-49 season for L Schools in Eastern and Western Maine. The medium and small schools (M & S) primarily used the regional format to determine tournament qualifiers through most of the 50’s and early 60’s. Eastern and Western Maine were divided into four regions each and two teams from each region would qualify for the tournaments. The M tournament was held at the Fort Fairfield Armory (from approximately 1955-1959) and the S was held in Houlton. In 1960 the M tournament was played at the ASTC (now UMPI) gymnasium. The winner in each one of these tournaments would represent the County in the Eastern Maine tournament. At that time there were six Class M Schools: Aroostook Central Institute (Mars Hill), Ricker Classical Institute (Houlton), Ashland HS, Washburn HS, Mapleton HS and Sherman High School. There were also six S Schools; Danforth, Oakfield, Island Falls, Hodgdon, Bridgewater and Easton. County principals would meet at the end of the season to determine the tournament qualifiers and pairings by evaluating the merits of each school’s team. Four teams in Classes ‘S’ and ‘M’ that would participate in the County tournament.
From 1961-1970 there were seven LL schools; Madawaska, Limestone, Houlton, Fort Kent, Fort Fairfield, Caribou and Presque Isle. At this writing there are no longer any large schools in Aroostook County.
In 1961 the Maine Principal’s Association reclassified teams from three classes (L, M, and S) to four (LL, L, M, and S). Heal points were used to determine the tournament qualifiers for LL & L, while M & S used the regional play-off format until 1963 and 1964 respectively. The names of the classes were changed again for the 1970-71 season to A, B, C, D.
Have you ever wondered how the local team received its nickname ‘Wildcats’? While researching this topic I came across an interview with former PI Standout Clarence Burnett that appeared in the Star Herald. He indicated that during the 1931-32 season that Claude Taylor, then a sportswriter for the Star Herald, would refer to the local team as the ‘Wildcats’ in his articles. Local fans picked up on this and they began calling the team the ‘Wildcats’. From that point forward that was how the local sports teams would be known.
When Coach Hanscom retired at the conclusion of the 1956 season he was replaced by Lawrence Richard who was a Husson College graduate. He coached for two seasons and was followed by Coach Hews, Coach Eugene (Dint) Lovely and Gary Osgood who began his coaching career at PIHS during the 1968-69 season.
It is also important to note that there was an Aroostook League for girl’s basketball. There was girl’s basketball in Aroostook County from 1901-42, however there are several years during this time that there is no record that games were played. Of the 26 years that games were played Houlton dominated by winning 10 County Championships including five consecutive season from 1938-1942. Presque Isle and Caribou each won five.
Photo donated by Dick Nichols
During the 1960 and 61 season Presque Isle dominated County and Eastern Maine play. In those two seasons the Wildcats lost only one regular season game, losing to Brewer in the Eastern Maine LL final in 1960 and losing to Cheverus in the State Final in1961. The “wildcat” starting five consisted of Wayne Hartford, Bob Duprey, Harry Buzzel, Steve Smith and Tom Cockcroft. All five starters averaged double figures their sophomore and senior year and all five were “All- State” selections their senior year. Hartford 1st team, Buzzel 2nd team, Duprey 3rd team and Smith and Cockcroft were honorable mentions. This team also had three players who were very close to scoring 1000 points for their careers. Pretty remarkable considering that during their junior and senior years there were many games when the starters played only one-half of the game. This was a high powered offensive team averaging 70 ppg. their sophomore year, 73.7 their junior year and 72 ppg. their senior year while limiting their opponents to an average of 53 ppg. Their junior year they set a Eastern Maine tournament record for most points scored in one game 103 (vs. John Bapst) and most points scored in three tournament games 240. Presque Isle was the only un-beaten team in the State in 1961 and entered EM Tournment as the no. 1 seed. In the quarter final game they faced County rival Houlton whom they had beaten twice during the regular season. The Wildcats exploded on Houlton opening up a 26 point lead. Houlton staged a tremendous comeback and cut the lead to 77- 61 in the fourth quarter, Presque Isle then responded when Bob Duprey hit on a driving lay-up and was fouled which put Presque Isle up 80-71. Steve Smith led the offense in this one dropping in 22 points, Harry Buzzell added 18, Bob Duprey 17, Wayne Hartford 11 and Tom Cockcroft 11. In the semi-final game Harry Buzzell was hot in this on and helped lead the Wildcats to a 74-61 win over Winslow. Buzzell was 12 for 14 from the floor and 2 for 2 from the foul line producing 26 points. Duprey had an outstanding game adding 21 points, Smith had 11 and Hartford 8, Cockcroft was credited with double digit rebounds. Presque Isle shot 52% from the floor. They faced off against Rockland in the Eastern Maine final coming away with a hard earned victory edging a good Rockland team 68-62. Duprey was key in this one hitting on 9 of 11 free throws as Presque Isle shot 70% from the line. Again all five starters were in double figures with Buzzell heading the list with 19 points, Hartford 15, Cockcroft 12 and Duprey and Smith 10 each. Presque Isle faced off against a tall and talented Cheverus team in the State Final played at the Bangor Auditorium in front of 5,000 fans. The Stags outscored the Wildcats 54 to 38 from the floor and controlled the rebounding and came away with a 75-54 win. Wayne Hartford led the Presque Isle offense with 15 points, Cockcroft added 11 and Buzzell 10. The loss ended an amazing era in Presque Isle basketball with the combination of Hartford, Buzzell, Duprey, Smith and Cockcroft who provided local fans with their best team in 30 years.
The ‘Wildcats’ were coached by Dana Hews from 1958-59 to 1963-64 seasons. Coach Hew’s graduated from Springfield College and had coached one year at the New England School of Theology in MA. he then coached Ashland High School for two years prior to coming to Presque Isle. Coach Hews noted that this was a very talented group of players individually put they were able to put that aside and play as a team. Other members of the 61 squad were; Berndi McDivitt, Storer Eager, Bob Allen, Gordon Fox, Al “Poodie” Smith, Jim Sharp and Dick Nichols. This group of athletes put together an amazing record their senior year. In all sports in which they participated (basketball, baseball, X-country and track) they amassed a 46-1 record losing only to Cheverus in the State LL basketball final that year.
Photo donated by Coach Dint Lovely
In 1965 the “Wildcats” led by Barney Smith went into the tournament number six and defeated no. 3 Brewer 89-77, defeated no. 2 and undefeated Winslow in the semi-finals 76-62 then lost to Stearns in the final 71-61. Significant contributors to this team were Smith, Mike Robertson, Daryl Sponberg, Jim Condon, Ralph Delano and Don Smith and Dick Hafford. This is the venue that Smith displayed his all-around great skills. In the first game against Brewer he scored 34 points, in the semi-final versus Winslow Smith scored 28 points and dished out 20 assists. In the Eastern Maine final he had the unenviable task of guarding Stearns great Jon McDonald. He held the great McDonald to one field goal and fourteen points, twelve of them coming from the foul line. Smith tossed in 18 that evening. During the regular season the team averaged 79.3 points per game and were led by Barney Smith who averaged 24.4 ppg., Darrel Sponberg, 14.4 ppg., Mike Robertson 10 ppg., Ralph Delano 10.7 ppg. and 6’7” sophomore Jim Condon 9.2 ppg. Dint Lovely coached the Wildcats from 1964-65 season to 1968. At the tournament the team was led by Smith’s 27 ppg. Condon’s 16.3 and Sponberg’s 11.8 ppg. Coach Lovely had coached the Brewer JV 1955-56, spent two years at Ellsworth High School replacing Charlie Kastiaficas. He then move on to Houlton High School prior to coming to Presque Isle for the 1964-65 season and remained Presque Isle head coach until the 1967-68 season. Coach Lovely hailed from Fort Fairfield, attended Ricker College and later graduated from the University of Maine Orono.
Photo provided by Dint Lovely