The third week of February is circled on calendars throughout Maine for a variety of reasons.
For educators, it signifies a week off from school, and a chance to be with family. The same can be said for children, who relish putting down the books for a few days to enjoy some winter activities.
Basketball lovers throughout the state, from coaches, players, fans and all the way down to guys like me who wear press passes and provide eager readers and social media followers with in-game analysis, 140 characters at a time, circle mid-February for one reason: Tournament time.
The madness that is the Maine regional high school basketball tournaments, an event that has been circled on my calendar going back to when I was knee-high to a basketball, officially began Wednesday with Class AA quarterfinals in Augusta.
In this, my 11th February sitting at venues in Bangor and Augusta armed with a press pass and a keyboard, a lot of tourney traditions will stay the same: Outstanding basketball, triumph mixed in with heartbreak, and tunes such as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Eye of the Tiger” and “Fireball” blaring from local pep bands.
Along with those old traditions comes a new era to tournament week: A five-class format which sees the state’s largest schools such as Edward Little, Oxford Hills, Lewiston, Portland, Bangor and Cheverus competing against each other. It’s quite unusual to see Bangor mixed in the same region with its large-school cousins to the south, but the five-class format has been great for high school basketball.
Even though the five-class format is new, the tradition remains the same, and there are quite a few storylines heading into the week. Time to break down a few of them:
CAN ANYBODY BEAT THE HAMPDEN BOYS OR LAWRENCE GIRLS? You never know what can happen during the heat of the postseason, but both of these undefeated teams won state championships in the old Class A last winter, and are favored to do the same this year.
It’s difficult to see anybody in northern Maine touching Lawrence. The Bulldogs won all but two of their games by double-digits this year, with the two exceptions coming against Class AA foes Edward Little and Bangor.
Nia Irving, who will attend Boston University on a full scholarship, is the best player in the state and the title is Lawrence’s to lose. Maybe a rival like Messalonskee or a gritty team like Nokomis will be able to upset the Bulldogs, but it’ll take a flawless game.
As for Hampden, they are the rightful favorites as well but their road to the state championship game could be a bit tougher.
Brewer appears to be the best bet to corral the Broncos. Even though Hampden swept the regular-season matchups, including a 28-point thrashing in the Witches’ own building to end the regular season, Brewer knocked off Hampden in the KVAC championship game. We all know how tough it is to beat a team three times in one season.
Medomak Valley, who won the Class B regional title last year, is a threat as well. Neither Brewer or Hampden met the Panthers during the regular-season.
WHO WILL EMERGE FROM A TIGHT CLASS B PACK? The toughest tourney puzzle to figure out this year is the wide-open field that is Northern Maine Class B boys.
The top five teams – Old Town, Ellsworth, Washington Academy, Orono and Mount Desert Island – all won at least 14 regular-season games. However, one of those teams will be going home during the first weekend of Tourney 2016.
All five of these teams are more than capable of playing for a state championship in two weeks. Let’s not forget that Old Town is only a couple years removed from hoisting the gold ball.
It’s also possible that longtime rivals Old Town and Orono could meet in the semifinal round. The Coyotes swept the regular-season meetings. Don’t sleep on always-tough Washington Academy either, and teams like Ellsworth, Caribou and Winslow are certainly capable of making a run as well.
WILL THE WASHBURN GIRLS’ DYNASTY COME TO AN END? I have seen many dynasties in my years of high school basketball. My first tournament as a full-time writer came at the height of the Waterville girls’ run of three consecutive state championships. We all remember what Cindy Blodgett’s Lawrence teams did in the 1990’s, and who could forget those great Lee Academy girls squads of the early part of the 21st century?
The reigning high school basketball dynasty resides in a small town in Aroostook County just west of Presque Isle.
Washburn will arrive in the Queen City the owners of five consecutive Class D state championships. The Beavers compiled a 14-4 regular-season record, good for the No. 2 seed in Northern Maine, behind a young but talented Southern Aroostook squad.
Washburn plays a brand of basketball that is enticing and fun to watch. The Beavers are extremely athletic and are one of the best teams I’ve seen at turning defense into offense. They are always well-conditioned, and if you get into a track meet with them, you’re in trouble.
Plenty of teams, including Southern Aroostook, Shead, Central Aroostook and Machias will be taking aim at Washburn’s crown. Katahdin is a sleeper as well, having played a Class C-heavy schedule. Will the Beavers make it an unprecedented sixth straight title or will a new champion emerge?
Ohh, and this would not be complete without predictions for who will emerge from northern Maine with regional bragging rights. Here they are, starting with the boys:
CLASS AA: Portland
CLASS A: Hampden Academy
CLASS B: Old Town
CLASS C: George Stevens
CLASS D: Easton
Now for the girls:
CLASS AA: Edward Little
CLASS A: Lawrence
CLASS B: Houlton
CLASS C: Narraguagus
CLASS D: Washburn
Enjoy the games, the bands, the hot dogs, and if you’re in Bangor, the Geaghan’s wings and Microbrew.