MIDDLEBURY — In 1983, the Middlebury Union High School boys’ basketball team shocked the Vermont sports world.
Despite an undefeated regular season, the Tigers were lightly regarded heading into the Division I playoffs. Almost all of their wins came against D-II teams, not against the D-I iron.
Even when MUHS improved to 23-0 with three playoff wins, no one gave the Tigers much of a chance against 22-1 St. Johnsbury. The two-time defending champion Hilltoppers were undefeated in Vermont, and they had Henry Dalrymple, who later starred at Georgia Tech and is considered the best-ever Vermont high school player.
“The underdog always hopes,” said Mark Mooney Jr., a 1983 MUHS classmate of most of the Tigers’ starting lineup. “But … nobody thought they were going to win.”
Mooney, now the owner of two businesses in Arlington, Va., one a marketing firm called NeoNicheStrategies, is making a documentary film that will feature what happened next: In the final at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium, the Tigers stunned the Hilltoppers, 73-57, to win the school’s only boys’ hoop title.
Mooney, who will be filming interviews in the area this week in conjunction with the class of 1983’s 30th reunion, said not only the result attracted him to the story: Even before the playoffs the team had captured the area’s affection and turned home games into major events.
“The whole community felt like part of the team,” Mooney said. “It was a small town where you know all the boys. It was super. It was like ‘Hoosiers’ as a fan. It was this unbelievable, surreal experience that nobody, particularly me, expected. We were all shocked, and thrilled. It was like this cherry on top of this great sundae. We had this great experience, and then they won the championship.”
Rollie White, the team’s coach and then an MUHS math teacher, now the principal of Community Investment Counselors in Middlebury, remembers the excitement began to build when the Tigers rolled through the annual Rutland holiday tournament.
“When we won that relatively easily … the crowds started picking up,” White said. “It took a little while for the town to come in and watch.”
Soon seats became scarce, especially when Montpelier visited for the last home game of the regular season.
“When we played Montpelier here it was one of those things where, ‘Can everybody slide down and crowd in and get some more people in here?’” White said.
Mooney hopes to recapture some of that magic this week in his documentary. On Monday, at Patrick Gym he will speak with former St. Johnsbury coach Layne Higgs and other coaches and media members from that era, including media members Andy Gardiner and Tony Adams.
On Tuesday, he will talk to team members, parents, community members, teachers, coaches and others around town, and on Wednesday he plans a panel discussion at MUHS that will feature White and team members Bob Pels, Rob Hamlin, Mike Sommers, Joe Calavita, Jim Daly, Shane White, Rick Wesley, Pete Gutterson, Dan Chaplin and Tom Boise.
Thursday brings a noon public reception for the 1983 MUHS class that will feature special recognition to teachers, coaches, the 1983 squad and the 2004 MUHS girls’ championship hoop team.
Mooney, a UVM graduate who played hockey at MUHS and then coached that sport at South Burlington High before moving to Virginia, also has a Sept. 15 date in Washington, D.C., with Henry Dalrymple.
The idea for a documentary came hand-in-hand with the reunion.
“I realized this was a one-time opportunity to capture the team on film … Most of the guys on the team were seniors and were ’83 grads,” Mooney said. “We have this incredible opportunity to get them all in one place.”
What he doesn’t have is a ton of experience making movies, although he has produced videos for his marketing firm.
But Mooney is unfazed.
“What I’ve found by being an entrepreneur is the willingness to do (the work) is half the battle,” he said. “Action is really the king.”
Mooney also believes the subject matter will help carry the day.
“I have a vision that is really the perfect storm of the Cinderella story,” Mooney said. “We’re going to tell it like it was. We’re not going to have to do any embellishment to tell the story.”
Mooney acknowledges that not all considered the Tigers to be underdogs — including the team.
“They probably knew what they were capable of. But I don’t think anybody else did,” he said.
White agreed. The Tigers believed they would win, he said, and if anything were disappointed they didn’t play their best in a three-point semifinal win over South Burlington.
“The South Burlington game was almost an upset,” White said. “We almost lost.”
Over time, others have come to view the Tigers differently. In an email to Mooney, current South Burlington coach Mike Kennedy noted that both Calavita, the team’s six-foot-seven center, and Hamlin, a guard who scored 42 points in the final and averaged about 27 points per game, went on to play for UVM. Both ended up as captains there. Hamlin was a role player, while Calavita racked up 1,464 points and 712 rebounds.
“I’ve always thought your team was one of the most underrated teams in Vermont history,” Kennedy wrote. “You were undefeated, beat a very good SB team in the semis, a great St. J team in the finals, and had two guys go on to play D1 college hoops.”
White said what made the Tigers a good team was each knew and accepted his assignments. None complained that more plays were run for Hamlin, the team’s primary shooter, for example. White recalled an incident in which an opposing player told one of the Tigers that Hamlin was a ball-hog because he shot so much, and the response the opponent received was, “That’s his job.”
“Every coach, if he gets lucky, has a team that understands their roles,” White said. “And that club did.”
And the word that White kept returning to while describing the Tigers was “loose.” He said the team would spend hours discussing the right music mix for bus rides, and would never tighten up before games — the Tigers had the ability to relax and have fun while playing their best basketball.
White recalled talking to then South Burlington coach Dave LaPointe.
“(He) came over after the game and said, ‘I don’t really believe in having my team being that loose, but it really works for you guys.’”
In the final, St. Johnsbury scored the first four points, but the Tigers responded with an 18-4 run and led by at least nine points the rest of the way, despite 33 from Dalrymple.
White said the Tiger defense forced turnovers that were converted into easy layups, and in the meantime Hamlin caught fire, scoring 42 points in the last Vermont boys’ high school game before the three-point line was adopted.
“If they had had the three-point shot, he would have scored well over 50,” White said.
Ultimately, Mooney sees the film on the team as a tribute to his hometown and alma mater.
“This project was triggered by all of the discussions related to the ’83 reunion and inspired by the wonderful memories of the Middlebury community, commitment of teachers and coaches, and all the folks that made growing up there so special,” he said. “The hoops team seemed to channel that spirit into a magical season, a once in a lifetime experience. We all felt strongly connected to it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]