For the local high school winter sports' teams, it all began back in November with pre-season tryouts, scrimmages, grueling practices and drills and ended finally last Sunday with a special drive-by ceremony to honor and individually recognize those student/athletes for their achievements.
As most of you probably know the COVID-19 pandemic cut short not only school but also the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association tournaments that were in progress. For the two Berlin-Gorham boys’ and girls’ ice hockey teams that meant no final appearances and Berlin's Co-ed Unified Basketball team was forced to miss its semifinal, with a chance to go to the finals.
All three teams drew first-round byes because of their outstanding regular season records.
Coach Mike Poulin's boy's hockey team finished the season with a 15-1-2 regular season record good for the No. 1 seed in Division III. In the pre-season Berlin Sun Winter Sports' supplement, the headline was "Berlin-Gorham Hockey a young team, coming together well."
The Moutainees had 11 underclassmen and six upperclassmen and back then, Coach Poulin said, "the kids are learning the system and coverages, but they have progressed quickly and are ready for the regular season to begin."
With that being said, Berlin lost its first game of the season to Belmont-Gilford 3-0, and went 17 straight regular-season games without a loss, (two ties), gained the No. 1 seed in the tournament and in the semifinals, came from behind to beat the two-time defending champions, John Stark-Hopkinton, 3-2, in overtime (Ben Estrella with the winning goal) to advance to the finals against long-time rival Kennett High, the No. 6 seed, which it had beaten twice during the winter (including a Christmas tournament win) and played to a tie in the third meeting.
Meanwhile, the Berlin-Gorham girl's hockey team had already advanced to the finals (vs Concord) earlier with two overtime wins, the first against St. Thomas-Winnacunnet-Dover 1-0, when Sophia Schoenbeck scored, and, then two nights later, when the Mounties beat Oyster River-Portsmouth 3-2, on an overtime goal by Jillian Halle.
The hockey team “features several returning veterans" and Coach Craig Bartoli had "set our main goal for the season to improve on last year's 12-5-1 record", which they did (12-4-2) and a second place finish in Division I hockey.
Berlin High's co-ed Unified basketball team, coached by veteran long-time mentor, Karen Turgeon said her team was "anxious to get the regular season started and have another successful run at the Division I title.” And did the Mountaineers ever have a successful season, finishing at 8-0, and as the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
After their first round bye, they played White Mountain Regional and although trailing 8-7, at the end of the first quarter, went on a 32-13 run over the final three frames to win going away 39-21. That win advanced them to the semifinals against Londonderry.
While the NHIAA playoffs were in full swing, so was the beginning of the virus pandemic, and after much deep thought, research and input from health officials, the remainder of the winter tournament games were cancelled.
The decision was made to award those teams still in tournament play, but now in limbo, something. The official NHIAA press release explained: "Co-champions were awarded to the highest-seeded teams remaining on each side of the tournament brackets, with all other remaining teams in the tournament being declared runners-up."
Therefore all three local teams highlighted above were declared co-champions: Berlin-Gorham boy's hockey with Kennett, Berlin-Gorham girl's hockey with Concord and the Berlin Unified BB team with Exeter.
How do you honor your three local state championship teams when schools are closed, lockdowns and social distancing is the norm? I mean, those kids never were even able to physically get together with their teammates and coaches, to encourage each other, share emotions, vent, whatever, after the lockdown. And that has gone on for the past 10 weeks. "What to do?" became the question.
George Herbert (1640) in his work, Jacula Prudentusm, wrote, "To him that will, ways are not wanting" (changed to "where there is a will there is a way" in 1820). Pauline Kael went a step further and said this, "If there is one chance in a million you can do something, anything to keep what you want from ending (without proper closure-my quote) than do it!"
So those in the school system put their collective heads together and came up with a plan. That plan was to meet in Gorham, with athletic directors Craig Melanson (Berlin) and Bill Goodrich (Gorham), along with coaches Turgeon, Poulin and Bartoli, and their assistants, include fire and police escorts and go to every member of the three teams' houses, delivering championship banners and T-shirts as a way of honoring and recognizing them for their achievements during the 2019-20 regular and playoff schedule, particularly the team championships.
That is exactly what happened on perhaps the most beautiful day we have had here in the North Country since last summer! Both Berlin Sun Managing Editor Barbara Tetreault and I were able to be part of the traveling caravan of a bus, driven by Big Buss Russ, fire trucks with Pat Tremblay from Berlin and Norm Frechette from Milan, police — Mark Santos and Josh White and Coos County Sheriff's Department's Keiths (Enman and Roberge), along with a couple of private vehicles, with principals Mike Kelley and Jennifer Corrigan, Virginia Grondin and Superintendent of SAU 3 Julie King.
Barbara and I agreed that "It was a very nice event with the athletic directors, coaches and school officials finding a way to celebrate the championships and bring/include the entire community into the festivities. Passing vehicles pulled over, honked horns and waved as the processional drove from Gorham, into Berlin and finally Milan and Dummer, as well as many people in the various neighborhoods traversed came out to wave and cheer.
These kids had not seen their coaches or had any real connection to teammates since their last game, so emotions were high as the banner was unfurled, the gifts were given out and pictures taken. Parents, siblings and many other family members were present to see their athletes get the recognition they so richly deserved.
The local sheriff's department stayed on to escort and control traffic the entire 5-hour trip, with fire and police switching off from Gorham to Berlin in Cascade.
Barbara and I did opt out before the end but were fortunate to be able to travel part of the way with the caravan and witness first-hand the individual ceremonies at each player's home, and I know she got some fantastic pictures, too.
Coach Turgeon said of the day: “Sunday was a day that will be remembered for so many reasons. First, how we played our season and ended up number one going into the tournament. Second, the disappointment that was felt when our champion quest was cut short. Third, the anticipation of maybe we can play this tournament out. Fourth, when the three teams sat in the gym and Mr. Kelly announced that it was the end of all our hopes to be the next state champion in our respected sports. The disbelief, the tears, the heartache, this is my senior year, the end of the season/career, it was very hard to believe and watch.
“Fifth, the wait from NHIAA on just how we were going to wrap up this season (and they certainly did it right). Their decision affected so many people but their decision did not disappoint many, especially if they come from a school district like Berlin Middle High School, who took the hand they were dealt and made it into something very special.
“Sixth, getting the news that we will all be state champions was something I didn't expect but was truly grateful for because we worked so hard and had high hopes for the season. Like I said last time it wasn't the way any of us wanted the season to end but in light of what this pandemic has done — it changed us all. So we will share — sharing isn't a bad thing, we will spend more time with our families — not a bad thing, we will be reacquainted with the things that should mean the most to us — not a bad thing, and to see all the people out to support these athletes — not a bad thing. I was moved at times beyond words riding on that bus with all the other coaches feeling the pride to be part of this community.
“From the administration, coaches, players and most of all the man who goes above and beyond for all student athletes Craig Melanson. The time and the effort he put into this unique celebration was top notch. He made so many people proud and happy to be a Mountaineer. Because of what this world is going through now makes you realize the most important things in our lives and how many things we took for granted in the past mean so much now.”
SAU 3 Superintendent Julie King was there with Queen’s version of "We are the Champions" blaring on the radio and she felt that today, "Was a great day to be celebrating our champions. It wasn't the typical celebration we had hoped for but I hope the kids know how very proud our communities are of their accomplishments. I can't wait to see them all together again when we are finally able to hoist those banners."
“It was an awesome day, it was great to see all of the athletes and their families again,” said Craig Melanson, “You don't realize how much we miss these people! The coaches did an amazing job along with the rest of the caravan personnel. Everyone contributed from holding banners, blasting ‘We are the Champions,” and all of the pictures taken. It was a great day for our athletes,coaches and community to finally get the recognition they deserved!”
Added Bill Goodrich: “Not sure if you are still looking for any thoughts, but just wanted to share what a wonderful tribute to these hockey players and it bought a much needed moment of happiness during these times. Although I was only involved in the Gorham Hockey players celebrations, the smiles on their faces and the appreciation from their families really made for a special day.
“It was so great to see the cooperation and help from both communities' fire, police, ambulance and sheriff’s departments and the coordinated effort getting to each and every athlete was amazing. None of this would have happened without the tremendous amount of work Craig Melanson and the Berlin coaches staff did to pull this off.”
Dan Croteau, father of B-G boy's hockey team member, Landyn Croteau, said, "I thought it was nice that Berlin and Gorham decided to do something for the kids to celebrate their championship season, although a proper parade would have been better (maybe in the near future?),”
And Landyn added, "The only thing that was going through my head was ‘wow’ this is actually happening, we won a state championship-it was special."