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Reliving the dream: With film, champs reunite and reflect

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Posted on April 2, 2014 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



GreenMtnUpset1886.jpg
THE COACH AND some members of the 1983 state champion Middlebury Union High School boys' basketball team pose under the Town Hall Theater marquee last Friday night before the premiere of a documentary celebrating the team's winning season 31 years ago. Pictured are, left to right, Rob Hamlin, Joe Calavita, coach Rollie White, Mike Sommers, Jim Daly and Pete Gutterson. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — On March 11, 1983, fans of the Middlebury Union High School boys’ basketball team packed the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium to watch a game that created a lifetime of memories for the team, sparked excitement in the community, shocked the Vermont sports world — and changed the course of a couple lives.

On that night, the Tigers completed a 24-0 season by defeating heavily favored, two-time defending state champion St. Johnsbury, 73-57, in the Division I final.

Thirty years later, those events inspired 1983 graduate Mark Mooney Jr. to produce the film, “The Green Mountain Upset.”

Mooney’s documentary debuted to a standing ovation this past Friday night at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, an event attended by most team members and many of their friends and mentors. It marked the second time in a year the Tigers reunited — in 2013 they gathered at their 30th reunion to be interviewed for the film.

Mooney, who like most of his classmates is approaching 50, was a hockey player at MUHS, but so enjoyed the basketball team he donned the Tiger mascot costume at some games.

Now head of his own marketing firm in Virginia, Mooney said he wanted the film to celebrate not only the team, but also his hometown and state.

“When you leave this area, you don’t leave the spirit. So it was a bit of a love letter to Vermont, Tiger spirit and underdogs,” Mooney said after the premiere.

The film includes archival footage of the Tigers in action and of their home towns, plus interviews with team members and their coach, Rollie White; teachers; fellow students; opposing coaches; media members; and, notably, St. Johnsbury’s star player, Henry Bruce Dalrymple, who went on to star at Georgia Tech and is considered to be Vermont’s best high school player.

Mooney’s goal of capturing the community’s spirit was met, said Rob Hamlin, a guard who was the team’s leading scorer and who poured in a then school-record 42 points against St. Johnsbury.

Hamlin, now the operations manager of an Idaho billboard firm, said as much as the movie allows him and his teammates to relive that season and night, it portrayed far more than just the game.

“The thing I got most emotional about was the whole town part. Like when the movie just started, when they showed the town and showed the hills and stuff. I guess it’s the whole sense of where-you’re-from type of thing,” Hamlin said.

As for March 11, 1983, well, why shouldn’t Hamlin, in particular, remember it?

For Hamlin and center Joe Calavita, it turned out to be more than just a game. The Tigers had played an under-the-radar D-II schedule. No one outside of Addison County knew who they were, never mind how good they were. After the Tigers outplayed the Hilltoppers, UVM offered Hamlin and Calavita athletic scholarships, and they played four more years at Patrick Gymnasium.

“That game changed my life. I got, and Joe, we both got offers to go to Vermont. You know, to me, that came out of that (game). Who knows what would have happened? I wasn’t even really thinking about college at that point,” Hamlin said. “Live here, play softball, you know, and go hang out at The Alibi. That was kind of the plan. But that game changed it all.”

DIVERSITY

Not everybody’s life path altered so dramatically just because of that season and that game. Forward Jim Daly — he described his role as “the weak-side rebounder and defender and the enforcer near the basket” — planned all along to go to college and teach.

For the past 26 years, Daly has taught high school science at Missisquoi Valley Union in Swanton. On Friday, he answered the what-if question — St. Johnsbury had won two titles in a row, with Dalrymple scoring at least 50 points in each final, and almost everybody except the Tigers and their coach expected the Hilltoppers to roll to their third.

“We were playing the two-time champs. They would have been the three-time champs, just like everyone thought was going to happen. I’m sure we would have been devastated if it happened that way,” Daly said. “But you look around, most of us have done well for ourselves, and it’s more important than winning the final game.”

Daly could have pointed to Hamlin, the successful businessman, or to point guard, defensive agitator and vocal leader Mike Sommers, who has made a career out of acting and writing, as has forward Rick Wesley.

And Calavita went on to not only carve his name into the UVM record books (he is in the top 10 in the program’s career scoring and rebounding lists), he played professionally in Italy for seven years and then earned a master’s degree in environmental studies and went to work for the state of California.

After Friday’s movie premier, they all joined each other on stage — along with teammates Andy McIntosh, Pete Gutterson, Tom Boise and Dan Chaplin — and as they exchanged high- and low-fives their bond looked as easy and natural as they said it was during the magical season.

“We hung out together and we liked each other. We would do what it takes for each other,” Sommers said. “I think having fun is underrated, and we were so happy that year.”

But this isn’t or wasn’t a cookie-cutter group.

“Actually, our team is real diverse. These guys are actors and comedians and you know, art guys. It’s not like five guys from the football team go to the basketball team,” Hamlin said. “It was kind of a melting pot.”

At Friday’s premiere, the players wore a tuxedo, a suit, a sports coat, a corduroy jacket with floral trim, a pink sports shirt, three pony tails, and a rainbow-colored jacket with a matching hat, while Sommers did his best (in his own words) to channel Don Johnson’s “Miami Vice” look.

Mooney said even back in the early 1980s the group by no means marched to the same drummer, even as they forged tight bonds.

He said they had “strong personalities, but not egos in those personalities. They were able to get along. They were really talented and really smart guys, and they figured out how to work toward a common goal. I just think that is more important than the little differences people have.”

STARTING EARLY

One reason the team may have meshed so well is that many started playing basketball together in elementary school, and then players from the outlying towns joined the team when they reached middle school. Calavita came along in high school, but left with his family for San Diego as a six-foot-three sophomore and returned for his senior year after growing several inches.

“I just think we grew up together. That’s the big thing. I’d known them all my life, except for Joe and the guys from the outlying areas,” Hamlin said. “You know how it is, you play against them, and then you come together in high school.”

Daly, who for the past several years has coached the Missisquoi girls’ varsity, said by the time the Tigers were seniors they could almost read each others’ minds on the court.

“There was a lot of communication, non-verbal communication during play, that was second nature, because we had the experience together,” Daly said.  

Adding to the Tigers’ confidence as their season started was their 16-4 record the season before, good enough for a No. 9 seed in the post-season. It ended in a playoff loss at No. 8 Bellows Falls, a game they felt they should have won. Then Calavita returned from San Diego, and the Tigers went undefeated in summer league play.

The Tigers knew they would be good, Sommers said, even though the program had never won a playoff game.

“I just knew we were 16-4 the year before,” Sommers said. “And we had Joe coming back.”

They also had a new coach. The Tigers credit former coach Bob Pels for instilling fundamentals, but said White’s more relaxed approach allowed their chemistry to shine.

“We had been through our basic training for three years with Bob Pels, and that’s not a bad analogy. He really taught us the game,” Sommers said. “Rollie had a much more fluid, open approach. It was perfect. It allowed us to stop thinking so much and just play.”

The team’s selflessness also was critical.

“We all had our roles,” Calavita said. “Rob was our scorer. I would rebound, I’d score occasionally and play good defense. I think we all knew where we fit in.”

And the Tigers were relaxed. Music thumped on bus trips, even on the way to Patrick to face Dalrymple and the Hilltoppers with their former coach aboard, even though the year before Pels would have insisted on quiet focus and jackets and ties.

“The music was blaring,” Sommers said, “and we were wearing sunglasses and these sort of Don Johnson outfits, and it was very loud. And we were wondering what Bob Pels was thinking.”

Calavita said he never quite recaptured the feeling of that season.

“I went on to play basketball at UVM and beyond that, and that was sort of that last time it was really for fun,” Calavita said. “Looking back on it, I realize what an amazing time it was.”

THE GAME

When the season started, the Tigers learned quickly that it could be special. Their toughest games came early, at a tournament in West Rutland. They won handily.

“I think we thought we were good,” Calavita said. “But someone reminded me our goal was to win a playoff game at the end of the year. So I just remember going down to the Rutland tournament at the beginning of the year and winning that and being excited we were 4-0.”

Then the Tigers coasted through the Lake Division, and earned the No. 3 seed behind St. Johnsbury and South Burlington. The Tigers got the playoff monkey off their backs by defeating Champlain Valley, 62-55, and then thumping Montpelier, 71-44.

No one expected them to defeat South Burlington in Patrick, but they did, 67-64, despite believing they had not played well. That result gave them more belief for the final.

“I think we overcame a big hump getting past South Burlington,” Hamlin said. “We played the underdog card pretty well. We had nothing to lose.”

The MUHS fans filled Patrick and roared as the Tigers came out of the locker room against a St. J. team with a 23-1 record and no losses in Vermont. MUHS promptly fell behind, 4-0.

And then with three defenders swarming Dalrymple, and with Calavita, Daly and Wesley controlling the boards, and with Sommers harassing the St. J. ballhandlers, and Hamlin tossing in shot after shot, the Tigers took charge. They went on an 18-4 run and led by 39-24 at the half on the way to the 16-point win.

On Friday, the filmed younger versions of the Tigers impressed themselves.

“We had some skills,” Sommers said. “I was seeing some good fundamental play out there. Good passing and defense and rebounding. Good shooting. And Rob is a savvy, sneaky scorer, man.”

Dalrymple got his points, but the Tigers made him earn every score.

“We were playing defense without fouling pretty well,” Daly said. “It wasn’t a hack-fest.”

But was it really an upset?

“They had the guy who destroyed everyone in the past,” Calavita said, “and it’s only in retrospect we realized we had some really good players, too.”

MEMORIES

Now, that game and that season mean different things to the Tigers. For Hamlin it figures most prominently — not only wouldn’t he be where he is now without it, but also his son just played on a team that finished fourth in Idaho in its division.   

Hamlin has a wall of memorabilia dedicated to his high school days, and said he thinks a lot about that time. But he wishes he could recall more details, and Hamlin hopes his son is taking some mental notes during his journey.

“I wish I could say I remember this conversation with so-and-so at halftime. Because you don’t really think about it until after, and maybe a long time after,” Hamlin said. “That’s some advice I try to give to my son, because they had a real good year this year. I was like, ‘Try to remember certain things, because 25 years from now, you’re getting together, and you’re talking to your son, or you’re talking to somebody else, you want to be able to say, yeah, I remember that, I remember how it felt.’”

Sommers said he hasn’t spent a lot of time dwelling on that season, but that the movie triggered welcome memories.

“There was footage of my dad coming up to me right after the game and whispering something in my ear, and that got me kind of teared up,” he said.

Sommers is grateful to Mooney for following through on his idea and creating the film.

“It captured it and brought it all back,” Sommers said. “It enhanced it for the rest of my life.”

Calavita said memories of that season usually reside only in the back of his mind, but that he enjoyed the chance to return to Middlebury, see the movie and understand how many people were affected.

“It’s nice there’s the love and interest, and it’s nice that someone like Mark was there to collect all that and bring us another moment of joy,” Calavita said.

Daly believes none of the Tigers obsess on that season.

“Naturally, it’s like the Bruce Springsteen ‘Glory Days’ for us, but we haven’t really milked it, I think, until Mooney started scheming with this movie,” Daly said. “It’s not like I moved two blocks down the street and I’m hanging out in the parking lot reminiscing about high school.”

But given that he coaches basketball, that season will always stay with Daly, especially when he gives his athletes one of those coaching pep talks.

“I’ll tell them somebody told me and my teammates once that we could do something great if we stuck together and worked hard and improved, that we could be state champs someday. And I’ll say it to you, because you could be,” Daly said. “That is something adults say that kids, are like, ‘Aw, that’s really B.S.’ It’s not. It’s really true, because it happened to me.”

Andy Kirkland may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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