Officially the tournament got underway with preliminary round games earlier this week. When we think of the tournament, especially in Eastern Maine, thoughts turn to the Cross Insurance Center and formerly the Bangor Auditorium.
This season marks my thirtieth attending tournament games. A lot has changed in thirty years. The shorts were well, short. The sneakers didn’t come in every highlighter color. Socks were pretty standard and didn’t cost thirteen to fifteen dollars a pair. What hasn’t changed is the drama that takes place on the court each season as fourteen to eighteen year old kids own center stage for a week.
1986 was the first year I started attending tournament games. From the moment I stepped foot inside the old barn on Dutton Street I was hooked. There were the sights of each school’s cheering section decked out in the school colors. Back then all sessions featured a girls contest followed by a boys match-up. The Dexter boys and Houlton girls were class B powers back then. I still remember seeing the home bleachers filled with Houlton black and Dexter red.
One of the first games I saw that year was Mattanawcook Academy led by their giant of a man, Curtis Robertson take on Foxcroft Academy, and their outstanding player in Dean Smith. The Ponies won the contest on this Presidents Day, or was it still called Washington’s Birthday back then? Both would go on and have outstanding playing careers at the University of Maine.
Of course the week was just getting started with more drama to come. On Friday night, a leaky roof was the prelude to one of the most memorable nights in tourney history. I was not in attendance this night but watched on T.V. as Houlton defeated Mt. View in the girls final, a game delayed by an hour an a half. To deal with the leak, a worker was raised on a hydraulic lift to place a bucket in the rafters.
The main event on this night featured the Dexter and Rockland boys, a game that ended well after midnight. Dexter survived in five overtimes, a contest that is still a regular topic of longtime tourney fans.
Prior to 2006, the class A tournament was played at the Bangor Auditorium, starting the weekend of the B, C, and D state championships. In that 1986 tourney I witnessed one of the greatest upsets in tourney history in person that night as Lawrence upset mighty Waterville in overtime. Waterville had defeated Lawrence by some 55 points in the regular season finale.
The tourney has drawn me back each year. Every other state has high school basketball but I don’t believe many have as many games jam packed in one week at one venue as we do in Maine. There is a uniqueness to Maine high school basketball. While many follow a particular school during the regular season, when tourney time rolls around we suddenly gain an interest in teams we may not be familiar with.
Memories come flooding back as I anticipate another year. Memories of watching the great Cindy Blodgett and her Lawrence teams for four glorious years. All of my years in the WABI corner of the Auditorium with George Hale and crew. What stories were told during our times up there. There were the scores of buzzer beaters, sending the Bangor Auditorium into a frenzy on one side and heartbreak on the other. Thirty years of improbable upsets, as well.
Not just the games but the sights and sounds of tourney week keeps me coming back. It’s been a thirty year drug and I’m completely addicted. The outstanding bands that rock the building each year. The tradition of the MDI band playing “Jesus Christ Superstar” when the team takes the floor has never gotten old for me yet. When it does, it might me time to stay home.
Tomorrow night, a new chapter will unfold in tourney lore. Who will be the record breakers? Who will capture gold? What memories will we hold onto forever? Many of us, self included, will once again make that annual pilgrimage. It’s February vacation week, which means tournament week. Where else would we be?