(The last in a 2-part series. Read Part 1)
By Mike Whaley
TIGERS MAKE THEIR RUN
As Coach Mike Lee noted, the addition of Mike Funk and Carl Whitten completed the formula. Funk was a big, strong kid, who could rebound, handle the ball and shoot. “He was tenacious,” Lee said. “He wasn’t afraid.”
Lee described Whitten as a flat out athlete. “He could run forever at clock speed. He could handle the ball. He could shoot with both hands,” the coach said. “He was an outstanding defender.”
It was a reunion of players who had played together growing up, even Casey Howard who was the eldest. “I grew up with those kids and hung out with them,” Howard said. “We have played together since we were eight years old. We played all the time on Water Street – a hoop on Steve Mosher’s barn. We were in the 500 Club. We played right through.”
Paul Boulay was a teammate of Funk’s in the 500, and remembers epic battles with Howard when they were 11. “It was like Walton and Russell,” he recalled. “He’d score 40 and I’d score 35. My coach was Hattie (Danny Reynolds). ‘Pass the effing ball, Boulay. Good job, play some defense.’”
Boulay would counter with “Casey’s scoring every time, coach. I’ve got to score, too.” It was an eye-opening experience to have coaches like the Moultons and the Reynolds, who pushed you and held you accountable at an early age.
Mosher recalls in junior high playing a game in Alton with coach Lee officiating. “He said this is the team that could put up a banner.”
They were about to find out.
The Tigers sliced through their competition, winning all three tournament games by an average of 19 points. In each game, Farmington used third-quarter surges to take control.
The quarterfinal match was with Winnsiquam, coached by Farmington-native Walt Garland and starring Tim Nash, a dangerous scorer. Nash had set a tournament record (that still stands) by making 23 foul shots in a first-round win.
The Tigers led 34-25 at the half, but used a predictable third-quarter burst to widen the margin to 52-36 en route to a 68-49 win. Howard led the way with 25 points, while Funk, Whitten and Tim Mucher had 10 apiece.
“ML was friendly with Butch Garland,” Mucher recalled. “I knew the Garlands. They lived right down the street. Not that we had to give that extra effort, but you didn’t want to lose to your friend. I think that got the ball rolling.”
In the semis, they took on Mascoma, a bigger team that Howard said was supposed to stay with the Tigers. Farmington led 37-25 at the break, and put the game away with another third-quarter run to go up 57-39. They won, 77-61, led by Howard’s 32 points, 18 from Whitten and 11 from Funk.
“Casey was Casey,” said Funk. “I’d put him up against anybody, I don’t care who they were. I’d put him up against anybody in the state. … We had tunnel vision. All we were thinking is we had a couple of speed bumps and we’re in the finals.”
While this team had speed and quickness that could run teams off the floor, it also had Howard if they were forced to play a halfcourt game. “I didn’t do any ball handling or outside shooting,” Howard said. “I didn’t do any of that. I just rebounded. The more they shot, the more points I got. If you miss it, I’m going to get it. That’s basically how I played.”
Conant was next in the championship. The stage was set.
It was a dream matchup between the two best teams in the class. Plymouth State’s Foley Gymnasium was packed as both sides were filled with fans from the respective towns with similar team colors – a sea of black and orange undulated from top to bottom and side to side.
“I remember coming out on the court for warmups, I had goosebumps. There were so many people,” Funk said. “It was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think.”
Mosher remembers one thing that happened during the pregame. One of the Conant players liked to shake everyone’s hand to psyche himself up. “If you look back at the film, a lot of us didn’t shake his hand. It kind of threw him off.”
Because they were playing on a bigger college court at Plymouth, the Tigers abandoned their full court press after the quarters. Lee knew the press could stifle teams on the smaller confines of the Farmington gym, but not so in Plymouth. The Tigers prepped for the bigger floor, noted Mosher, pushing in the bleachers in Farmington so they could match the width of the Plymouth court.
One big change the Tigers made was learning a 1-3-1 matchup zone defense that they had not used all season. “Our goal was to have them step out three feet beyond where they liked to be,” Lee said. “That was our No. 1 goal.”
Because Howard had played so well in the first two playoff games (57 points), Conant focused their defense on him. It was a mistake. The Tigers were able to play more of a full court game. “Tim Mucher and Steve and Carl ran right through Conant,” Lee said. “They didn’t have a guard that could play with our guards. That’s what it really came down to.”
One thing that grated Mucher was when Conant scored, their players would wag their fingers like they were No. 1. “I think they were a little cocky, always holding their fingers up,” he said. “We used to say you’re not No. 1 until you cut the nets down.”
Howard scored just seven points, but that opened things up for Funk. He took advantage of the extra attention paid to Howard to score a game-high 30 points. Whitten added 21. The Tigers led 31-26 at the half, but yet another big third quarter (19-9), sparked by 15 Funk points, gave them all the breathing room they needed going into the fourth quarter up 15, 50-35. “We were pretty famous for coming out strong in the second half all season,” Funk said. “During the season teams that could hang with us in the first half – Newmarket, St. Thomas – we’d come out in the second half and put up 30 points. The next thing you know we’ve demoralized them. They’re giving up.”
The final score was 76-54 in the Tigers’ favor. A championship envisioned by many of the players in junior high was a reality – the first since the legendary 1970 team won the school’s inaugural crown. To celebrate, Mucher climbed up on one rim, stood up and exalted. He claimed he got the idea from Reggie Lewis. When the late Boston Celtics star was in college, he had climbed up and sat on the rim after Northeastern won the North Atlantic Conference playoff championship. Mucher was actually a trendsetter and possibly clairvoyant. Lewis became famous for that rim-seating celebration two years later in 1986,
Mucher thought to himself at the time, “no way am I sitting. I’m standing on the thing.” He can also remember, laughing, tournament director Peter Cofran pleading over the public address system, “Please show some class Farmington and get off the rim.”
Afterwards, the town showed its appreciation. Funk remembers the bus getting to the Alton Traffic Circle where carloads of fans began to be seen along the road to Farmington. “The horns started blaring,” Funk said. “People were saying ‘look out the window, look out the window.’”
Funk said at first the cars were sporadic along the side of Route 11, but after the first quarter mile it was constant all the way to Farmington. “They were holding up signs, laying on their horns,” he said. “It was a slow bus ride.”
The bus slowly rolling down Central Street, recalled Funk. People came out of their houses and were flashing their porch lights. “We got to the high school,” Funk said. “Talk about standing room only. We went in there and it was just a madhouse. People shaking your hand.”
Funk remembers all the free pizza from Vinnie’s Pizza, but one thing that still resonates is looking out at the crowd and seeing men like Paul Moulton and Danny Reynolds, who had coached them all growing up. “I was so glad I could get a chance to say thanks to Paul Moulton and Danny Reynolds from that great 1970 team.”
‘TOPPERS FINALLY BREAK THROUGH
Somersworth felt pretty good about itself going into the tournament. The past was the past. “Back then we really weren’t worried about anybody,” Kyle Hodsdon said. “We were only concerned about ourselves. That was the confidence the Somersworth kids had back then in every sport.”
The team hung its hat on its Big Three (Boulay, Steve Cartier and Hodsdon) and its depth. Cartier had experience and had developed into a dependable scorer. The linchpins were Boulay and Hodsdon. “Paul was not interested in glory,” Francoeur said. “He was so strong. He was a quick jumper. He wanted to own the boards in the fourth quarter.”
With Hodsdon at the point, the ‘Toppers had a top-notch ball handler and scorer. Because of him, teams rarely pressed Somersworth. “He allowed us not to have to worry about things,” Boulay said. “He was as good a high school floor general as there was (in NH).”
The Hilltoppers took care of business in the first two games. They were in control the whole way to beat Fall Mountain in the quarters, 72-59, led by 26 from Hodsdon and 23 from Cartier (13 rebounds). In the semis against a bigger ConVal team, Hodsdon (30 points) and Cartier (21) combined for 51 to lead the team to a hard-fought 61-55 victory.
Steve Pepin was a dependable starter who could defend and rebound. He had been cut from the varsity as a junior and decided not to play with the JV team. He came back as a senior ready to play. He recalls before the Fall Mountain game thinking there were springs on the UNH floor. “I was getting up higher than I ever could,” he said. “It took a few minutes into the game for that nervousness to go away. After that first game, the rest of the games were just a game. We were settled in.” Up 31-22 at the half, the Hilltoppers, who had to shake off the rust from an 11-day layoff, used a 23-6 blitz in the third quarter to put the game away.
Pepin remembers thinking that he was more afraid of ConVal than Pembroke. “ConVal had me nervous because we weren’t big,” he said. “Paul was 6-2 and Cartier was 6-3, and they were (much) bigger. We found a way to keep them out of the box.”
ConVal had 6-4 Dan LaFleur and 6-6 Todd Burgess, who helped the Cougars claim a 39-19 edge on the boards. They also combined for 35 points to stay within striking distance until the 1:07 mark when two Hodsdon free throws made it a five-point game, 56-51. Still, the Cougars never let Somersworth feel like it could breathe easy.
It was on to the state final against Pembroke, a team they had beaten by a single point during the season. “All that good feeling and success goes out the window when you lose that last game,” Hodsdon said. “It’s a consolation prize. We didn’t think that way. We weren’t satisfied getting to that point. They don’t put runner-up banners in the gym.”
The team likely meant more to Boulay than most of his teammates. A four-year starter, he had lost in the semis as a freshman, and then in two championships in a row as a sophomore and junior. In last year’s championship defeat to White Mountains, the team’s last loss, he had not played well. On top of that, he had seen his friends in Farmington win their championship in Class M a week earlier, a team he could have played with had he stayed in town.
“I was confident, but I will tell you, I was also stressed,” he said. Coach Larry Francoeur kicked Boulay out of practice the day before the championship. The team had gone over to Dover to play on their court to get used to the big court. Boulay never played well at Dover. “I think I was nervous. I think I was in my head,” he said. “We had a spat. ‘Well get out of here. Go get a shower.’”
Boulay left, but Francoeur followed him into the locker room where they had another exchange.
“What the hell are you doing?” bellowed Francoeur.
“You just kicked me out of practice, coach,” countered Boulay.
“You big effing baby, get your sh*t on and get back out there,” the coach said.
Boulay felt him and Francoeur were both under pressure that they put on themselves. “He came from Nute and replaced Ed in that kind of kicking Ed Labbe out,” Boulay said. “That was tough for the players too. Some of us played for Ed as freshmen.”
Boulay continued about Francoeur: “He had just won at Nute (Class S title in 1980). We were a good team. He had lost two in a row. I had lost two in a row. If we hadn’t won we probably wouldn’t have talked to each other after that.”
Somersworth and Pembroke, guided by veteran coach Ed Cloe, played before a full house at UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium. It was even Steven in the first half – 10-10 after eight minutes and 25-all at the break.
Then the third quarter unfolded and Boulay’s worst nightmare with it. The Spartans went on a 20-10 run to go up 45-35 with 1:04 to play in the frame. “I remember being on the foul line and they were shooting,” Boulay said. “I’m looking up in the stands. I think there were over 2,000 people. The place was packed. I’m trying not to cry.”
The ‘Toppers responded. Boulay went coast-to-coast to score, drawing a foul in the process. He hit the freebie and then found Reil for another bucket to quickly slice the margin to five, 45-40, after three quarters.
Pepin never felt like they were going to lose. “We didn’t panic. We might have ratcheted it up a little bit,” he said. “Dug in a little bit more, didn’t give up any defensive rebounds, pressed them a little bit, got some pickoffs. And then Paul got to the foul line and he lived there.”
Cartier’s two free throws put Somersworth ahead to stay, 50-49. Pepin’s foul shot made it 53-51 with two minutes to play. Neither team could capitalize as time wound down, and the score was still sitting a 53-51 with 33 seconds to go. Pembroke inbounded the ball, looking for a final shot to tie the game. Hodsdon can still see the possession in his mind. “They got the look they wanted,” he said. “They got a rebound and a miss. There was kind of a fumble, I think. It went out of bounds (to Somersworth). Timeout.”
Coach Francoeur remembers that final sequence, one that was certainly open to second guessing. “Paul wasn’t one of my great foul shooters,” he said. “That night he was 7 for 7 from the line.” Francoeur recalls keeping Boulay after practice to shoot foul shots. He had to make five in a row. “He wasn’t a bad foul shooter,” the coach said. “It was just something we did. It would end up him and I in the gym; me rebounding for him until he could make those.”
With five seconds to play, Hodsdon was the person to take the ball out of bounds. “He was the guy,” Francoeur said. “He never missed a foul shot. He was my ball handler. He was my most reliable guy. Most people would have had somebody else take it out. I trusted him taking the ball out of bounds to run a single play and Paul got fouled. And he was able to make the foul shots.”
He made both ends of a one-and-one with four seconds to play that made it 55-51 and put the game away. Hodsdon led the way with 17 points. Cartier added 13 before he fouled out with 2:30 to play. Boulay had 11 points and eight boards. Tim Cloe and Mark Colby led the Spartans with 16 and 14 points, respectively.
“For the most part these were guys I grew up playing Little League with,” Pepin recalled. “As soon as the buzzer went off we’d done it as a group. The football championships with the older guys (in 1980 and 1981), we were tagging along. This one felt like ours.”
A big key on defense was Somersworth pressing in the final quarter to claw back. In the final 9:04 of the game, they outscored the Spartans, 20 to 6. In addition, Deschenes and Brown took turns guarding Pembroke’s lefty scoring threat, Mike Drouin, who had torched the Hilltoppers for 31 points during the regular-season meeting. They held him to two points.
It was Drouin who took one of the final shots, a bank shot that Hodsdon said he makes 70 percent of the time if not more. “He missed it. They got the rebound and missed it again. The ball went out of bounds. Our ball.”
The rest was history.
Two undefeated championships were in the books. Later that winter at the Seacoast Basketball Tournament at the Connie Bean Center in Portsmouth, most of the Farmington players teamed up with Boulay on Fulton’s Ramblers to win the Class B championship over Portsmouth, the champs of Class L. Portsmouth, however, played without James Best, the top player in the state, which complicated any claims at bragging rights.
Farmington was in position to make a run at a repeat the following year, with five of their first seven players back, including four starters. But Funk blew out his knee at a game at Conant and was never the same again. The Tigers advanced to the semis, losing to Hillsboro-Deering.
Somersworth was not as strong as it was, but led by Hodsdon, still made it to the semis. Hodsdon scored over 1,000 points as did Mosher for Farmington in the next season.
The two teams who had lost to Farmington and Somersworth in the ‘84 finals were crowned as champions in 1985 – Conant and Pembroke.
Some of the players from both teams went on to play in college. As previously mentioned, Hodsdon and Mucher teammed up at Plymouth State for four years under Phil Rowe. As seniors, they led the Panthers to a 20-7 record and a berth in the Little East Conference championship game where they lost to Southern Maine, an eventual NCAA D-III final four participant.
Howard played one year at Vermont Technical College, while Mosher captained baseball and basketball teams at Becker College, a two-year school in Massachusetts. Boulay, unsurprisingly, played football on scholarships at the University of New Hampshire. He was a two-time All-Yankee Conference First Team pick and the conference defensive player of the year as a senior.
Farmington got another title four years later with some brothers of the 1984 team onboard – Craig Whitten, Chuck Whitten, Mike Mucher and Ron Howard. It was coach Lee’s last title in a 21-year career that ended in 1998 coaching his youngest son, Tim.
Francoeur made it to the tournament every year he was the Somersworth coach, but did not make it back to the finals after 1984. He stepped aside in 1988, but continued to work at Somersworth HS until 2007. He remains active as the state’s longest active high school volleyball official and referees junior high basketball.
While Farmington has not won a title since 1988, the Hilltoppers have captured three – all in Class M/Division III (2005, 2011, 2015). Their first two titles came in 1969 and 1979 in Class I under the guidance of Labbe.
Debates still rage about who was better – Somersworth or Farmington. Hodsdon texted Mucher the picture of Mucher standing on the rim in Plymouth, noting “You believe that happened 40 years ago?”
Hodsdon said to Mike Lee, “Let’s get a game.”
Lee laughed. “I don’t think my players could walk to the scorer’s table. It was all in jest.”
Lee claims that years later Boulay told him he didn’t think he could have started on that 1984 Farmington team. “Why is that, Paul?” Lee recalled asking. “Because you guys would run and press. I didn’t want to do that,” Boulay supposedly said.
Boulay disagrees with Lee’s memory. “Most people who know me know I wouldn’t have said that,” he noted. “Maybe I was kidding if I did. Maybe it’s an early AI case. But I kind of think that’s a slap in the face. I had been to two state finals (as a sophomore and junior) in a higher division. I grew up with those kids. I was the best player of that group. I’m not saying as a senior I was better. But I definitely think I could have started for that team.”
Which is a scary thought indeed. With Boulay there was a great argument that the Tigers would have been the best team in the state across all divisions.
Forty years later, the 1983-84 season remains a singular one in the annals of both schools; something to cherish. “That was a special experience,” Boulay said, “being part of both those communities.”
CELEBRATIONS: Somersworth will celebrate the 1984 championship team on Friday (Feb. 9) during the halftime of the boys high school home game with Berlin, which starts at 6 p.m. Farmington will also hold their own celebration, but not until the beginning of next season.
Got a story idea, you can reach Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org