High school basketball fans have a connection to their home team that pro fans must do without. After all, the boys or girls on the court — if not your own kids — may well live next door or down the street. Even the most devoted Celtics fan — wearing a Larry Bird jersey and sitting in a floor seat at the Garden — knows his team is not really from Boston. After all, a Celtic star has as much chance of being from Bosnia as Beantown. But in 1972, when more than 1,000 Milford fans stood and chanted “We’re #1” after the boys’ basketball team took the New Hampshire championship, they truly meant we.
Heading into the 1971-72 school year, it was no secret that the Spartans could play. The team had a cast of returning seniors: shooting guard Joe Calderara, rebound specialist Todd Cannaday, fast-breaking speedster Rodger Lehr, and the 6-foot 5-inch center Joe Raymond. But as a small school going up against the (often literally) big boys from Nashua and Manchester, Milford was a dark horse. They’had never won a championship before and of the twelve teams that would enter the end-of-the-year tournament, Milford had the smallest male enrollment — just 467 boys.
But led by high school social studies department chairman and player’s coach Mo Facques, these “Cinderella” Spartans spent their Christmas vacation surprising everyone, winning the Queen City Invitational Tournament in Manchester on December 27. The win was unexpected — and despite outstanding play from tournament MVP Rodger Lehr, superior coaching from Facques, and wins over Manchester Central, Nashua, and Manchester Memorial — most local experts were still not on the bandwagon. Manchester Union Leader Sports Editor Joe Barnea would later say “The so-called experts — including you-know-who — who picked Central to win the title committed the unpardonable sin of underestimating Milford High.”
Compiling an 18-2 regular season record, the Spartans headed into the playoff tournament in high gear. After seeing their local boys trounce Berlin in the quarterfinals, Milford fans braved a March evening snowstorm to drive up to Durham to see the Spartans beat Nashua 80 to 66 in the semis.
The championship game was held on March 17, 1972, at Lundholm Gym at the University of New Hampshire against perennial winners, Manchester Central. Known as the “Little Green,” Central was anything but little — a big club that had won 19 in a row during the regular season. But Milford raced out to a 23-20 lead as the Little Green left Joe Calderara open from the outside to see what he could do. He did plenty — hitting jumpshot after jumpshot until Manchester had to come out and challenge him. Along with strong play from Mark Lehr and Dave Quinn, the Spartans took a 10-point lead to the break.
In the third quarter, the Little Green came all the way back. Numerous Milford turnovers and strong shooting from Central had Milford clinging to a one-point lead entering the final quarter. As it turned out, the Milford boys had it all the way. In the fourth quarter, big man Joe Raymond repeatedly hit from the foul line and Calderara continued to drive and score even as Mark Lehr fouled out. When the buzzer sounded, Milford had their first championship — 79-71 winners. Fans poured onto the court, hugging players, congratulating Coach Facques, chanting their own dominance.
The trip back home was a party on wheels. State police relayed the route of the school buses to local cops as the procession brought the boys back home. As the cavalcade approached the Horace Greeley restaurant in Amherst, Spartan fans — most of whom had been following every basket on the radio — were everywhere. Honking their horns, some got in line behind the bus while onlookers watched and shouted from nearby porches. With sirens blaring and lights flashing, the police escort led the bus into Union Square where the team circled the Oval to the cheers of fans and then headed on to the high school for a rally where hundreds more greeted the champs. One resident captured the mood of the town, telling the Milford Cabinet, “We haven’t seen excitement like this since VE Day.”
Congratulations that ran in the Milford Cabinet to the champs.