In numerous travels to gyms throughout northern Maine this winter, I’ve heard the mantra repeated by several veteran basketball observers. Basketball is down. Those who utter the expression may have good reason for doing so. Then again, maybe not.
Comparisons are the natural thought process of the sports fan, especially those of us who have been fans for a significant period of time. It can be a fun exercise as we relive what we believe were the glory days, never to be witnessed again. We come upon some key issues when we engage in such nostalgic thought.. First, our memories do become faded over time. Secondly, when comparing today’s game with the players and teams of yesterday, we often will remember only the best of an era.
Teams such as the great Bangor and Ellsworth teams from the 1950’s, Stearns and Cony from the 60’s, Orono from the late 60’s, the mighty 1979 South Portland contingent are remembered because they were exceptional. They were not the norm as I’m sure there were weak teams during those eras as there are today. As girls basketball grew to prominence we remember vividly the stellar Stephanie Carter led Schenck teams of the 80’s while a juggernaut was forming in Augusta with the rise of Cony. Who can forget that great four year run by Cindy Blodgett and the Lawrence girls from 1991-94?
Do we base the health of our game on the number of potential scholarship caliber players throughout the state? Since on a good year, Maine produces maybe a handful of Division I or II prospects, I’m not sure this is an accurate barometer of the overall state of the game either.
Over the past two seasons, another factor has skewed our perception of basketball quality throughout the Pine Tree State: the inception of five classes for postseason play.
In a move designed to promote greater competitive balance, the shift to five classes has done anything but. The change has created a more watered-down product, a result which should have been made obvious to anyone once the allocation of schools was released. By adding class AA with its six schools qualifying for postseason play, this meant six schools, who normally wouldn’t have been playing at the tournament sites are now part of the big show.
For those of you who still think basketball is down, I thought it would be interesting this week to examine what a potential Northern Maine tournament would look like under the old four classification system.
Starting with the girls, how about an A tournament with the likes of Oxford Hills, Edward Little, Messalonskee, Skowhegan, Hampden, Lawrence, Bangor, and Lewiston? Talk about a loaded tournament that is wide open. Messalonskee, undefeated in A could certainly more than hold their own and very likely win the whole thing against the AA opponents.
Class B as presently constructed is perhaps the most wide open tournament. Replace Houlton and Central with Nokomis, Camden Hills, and either Gardiner or Waterville. Likely the Big East and KVAC would each send four teams to the Cross Center. Current B schools Presque Isle, Hermon, Winslow, Foxcroft, and possibly John Bapst or MDI would join the aforementioned schools.
Class C would have a different favorite as Stearns would likely be playing in class D. A Class C tourney featuring Houlton and Central, George Stevens, Madawaska, Piscataquis, Calais, and possibly Narraguagus and Dexter could be interesting.
The D tournament would see Stearns as a solid favorite but they would certainly be challenged by a still youthful Southern Aroostook squad. Add Woodland, Fort Fairfield, Penobscot Valley, perhaps Schenck into the mix with current D schools Shead and Central Aroostook.
On to the boys side of things. The class A tournament would be a wide open affair with Edward Little and Oxford Hills from AA. Perennial power Hampden would be in the hunt along with Messalonskee, Skowhegan, Cony, Brewer, and more than likely Bangor.
Class B would be absolutely loaded under this four class scenario. Take Medomak, Gardiner, Oceanside, Nokomis, and Winslow from the KVAC. Throw in MDI, Hermon, and Presque Isle from the Big East. That’s not even taking into account solid programs like Belfast or Washington Academy, which could cause havoc in a potential prelim.
With no disrespect to the other teams competing for the Class C title, George Stevens Academy is a heavy favorite to cut down the nets on Championship Saturday. What if you throw in Orono, Central, and Houlton? Rounding out the field would be Lee Academy, Dexter, Fort Kent, and Bucksport.
Many prognosticators have Machias and Southern Aroostook penciled, or maybe penned in, to a regional final showdown. Under the four class format, Fort Fairfield, which already owns a win over SA recently, Hodgdon, Schenck, and Woodland, would be in in the hunt. Current D schools such as Easton and Central Aroostook would also likely make up the tourney field.
Many might dismiss me as someone who is opposed to change. On the contrary, I support changes which provide a benefit to help advance the game of basketball. We have seen many adjustments made just in the thirty years that I’ve been following the game. We have witnessed open tournaments with two-thirds of teams now qualifying. We have seen the reduction of non-countable games, the consolidation of the tournament into one week, coaches calling time-outs from the bench, and now the new five-class system.
I’ll conclude this week’s column with a challenge to anyone who has followed this great game for a generation or more. Name one change which has been implemented in the last twenty years, which has had a positive effect on the game.