Penquis’ Tony Hamlin decides to leave coaching following state championship

By Bill Pearson
Staff Writer

    MILO — Moments after Penquis Valley won the State Class C basketball championship, coach Tony Hamlin’s thoughts started to turn toward whether there’d ever be a better time to exit the stage on his 31-year coaching career. Hamlin earned his 400th career victory in the regional final a week earlier and just won a second state title at his alma mater.

    So after reaching two milestones that few coaches ever reach, he decided on March 4 to inform school officials this was his final season.
    “I kept asking myself how many coaches have a chance to go out with a win in a state championship game. I’m 61-years-old and I don’t know how much longer I have in coaching. So why push it?” Hamlin said following his team’s March 2 victory over Boothbay Region.
    In coaching his teams at four different schools to 401 wins and three state championships, Hamlin credits his success and longevity to all of the players he has coached.
    “These kids are the reason why I’ve done it so long. It’s been a great 31 years. I’ve had so many wonderful players to coach over the entire time,” Hamlin said.
    Penquis finished the season with a 21-1 record and defeated two No. 1 teams in the tournament. The Patriots dominated the regular season by posting a 28.1 point average margin of victory.
    While having a championship caliber team is a wonderful blessing for a coach, it can also be a curse. There were times when Hamlin struggled to make his players realize they needed to continually improve if they were going to achieve their mutual Gold Ball aspirations.
    “We went through a whole season where we won our games by 20-something points. Eventually they are going to stop believing that the other team can beat you,” Hamlin said. “I constantly spent time trying to make them understand to respect the other team’s ability and challenge them to improve.”
    During the tournament, Penquis showed they were ready to contend for a championship in the early rounds. The No. 2 Patriots easily defeated Stearns and Dexter to set up a matchup against No. 1 Houlton. Penquis trailed by 11 points in the second half before Hamlin called a timeout. When the Patriots entered the huddle, Hamlin saw his team’s leading scorer, Isaiah Bess, was battling leg cramps and the faces of his other players were also showing signs of fatigue.
    This led Hamlin to issue some words of encouragement to spark their comeback.
    “I told them if you’re tired then they’re even more tired. Now is the time to take it to them and leave everything on the court,” he said. “I wasn’t too worried at that point because this is a gritty bunch of kids. So I knew they had it in them.”
    Penquis trailed 38-31 with 6:02 remaining in the game. The Patriots used their full-court man defense to outscore Houlton 15-3 to win the Eastern Maine Class C championship. A week later in the state game, Penquis was the team that established a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter. The Patriots led by 13 in the final stanza and appeared on their way to victory. But Boothbay rallied and cut the lead to one point with 30.7 seconds left.
    Again, Hamlin’s coaching strategy played a big part in the Patriots’ victory. This time it didn’t happen during a timeout, but rather during a practice a week earlier. Hamlin was preparing his team to play Houlton when he instructed his players not to think about the color blue.
    Penquis captain Trevor Lyford indicated that his coach’s instruction had the opposite effect.
    “We were all thinking about why he didn’t want us to think blue,” Lyford said. “Then he told us when it came time to shoot our free throws to put the pressure out of minds and just shoot them.”
    Against Boothbay, in the fourth quarter, Penquis made 18-26 free throws which included Lyford connecting on 10 of 12 attempts. Hamlin’s ability to instruct his players on handling the tournament pressure is one example how he prepared his team for any contingency.
    Lyford has played for Hamlin for the past three seasons. He is fond of one particular saying that Hamlin has imparted on the team: “Bet the jockey, not the horse.”
    “Got to give credit to the coach,” Lyford said. “He’s been around so long that he sees things that nobody else does. When it came time to take those foul shots, I thought blue and made them.”
    Over the years, whether it was his first job at MCI or returning home to Milo, Hamlin’s formula for success has started with playing hardnosed, half-court man-to-man defense. Travis Ellis played for Penquis when the school won their first state title in 2000. He has seen the impact Hamlin has had on Penquis basketball over the years.
    “It all starts with defense. You can see that with his current team just as much as with the one I played on,” Ellis said. “He’s hard on his players, but they all understand what a privilege it’s to play for him. You know at a young age that you’re going to get an opportunity — playing for coach Hamlin — that most basketball players don’t ever have.”   
    It seems the coach’s passion for playing tenacious defense first came to the public’s attention when he was playing for the last Milo High School team with his brother Peter. and the first Penquis Valley squad during his junior year. Former University of Maine Coach Thomas “Skip” Chappelle remembers Hamlin as being a tremendous all-around player.
    Chappelle first coached Hamlin on the Maine freshmen team. The next year was Chappelle’s first year as the varsity coach. He recalls Hamlin as being a hardnosed defender and an “exceptionally” intelligent player. When it came time to select a team captain for the 1973-74 season, Chappelle knew Hamlin was the logical selection.
    “Mind you, I said captain, not co-captain. That is a distinction he earned for himself,” Chappelle said. “He was an outstanding ball player, but he really made a name for himself with his defense. I love watching him coach because all the qualities he displayed as a player are evident in his team.”
    Hamlin started his coaching career at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield in the mid-1970s. He later coached at Class A schools Morse, in Bath, and South Portland where he led the Red Riots to the 1983 state championship.    
    Hamlin became the Penquis coach in 1996. His teams soon found success as the Patriots won the 1999 and 2000 regional championships,
    He also coached Penquis to their first state basketball championship in 2000. Hamlin won 231 with Penquis during his 17 seasons.

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