BANGOR — So just what is a level playing field, anyway?
A lot will be said between friends, written online and grumbled at family dinners about Lee Academy’s 65-55 win Saturday night over Dirigo for the Class C boys’ basketball championship.
Let the Dirigo student section get in the first volley, aired across the Bangor Auditorium floor in the final minute: “Free tu-i-tion.”
It might sound like sour grapes. But some of it probably is justified.
Without sounding too much like the sore losers (lunatics, even?) who haven’t given up hounding the president for his birth certificate, it probably stops short of profiling to presume that not every member of Lee’s starting lineup spent his entire childhood in Lee, or Winn, or some township-range combination in the Penobscot Valley.
Less than a decade ago, Lee — a school of 240 undergraduates, teetering on that ever-changing Class C/D borderline — launched a prep basketball program.
One of Maine’s most visible AAU coaches, Carl Parker, was a driving force behind the movement and the team’s first coach. It was designed in the image of Pittsfield’s Maine Central Institute: A steppingstone for the growing pool of players blessed with Division I potential but needing another year of grooming on the court or in the classroom.
This was not — I repeat, NOT — the prep team that schooled the Cougars. Could you consider it the JV team? In a roundabout way, sure. Has the emergence of the post-grad program helped elevate the status of the high school squad, enhancing Lee’s identity as a day school for Eastern Maine students and an educational nest for international youth wanting to spread their wings? You bet your booty.
Think of Lee as a developing Hyde School North, or North Yarmouth Academy Central.
And yes, one way or another, the mention of those two names evoked a reaction. We’ve seen this movie once or twice or two dozen times. Wailed and gnashed our teeth and wrung our hands about it for a generation, going on two.
Heck, this issue is older than any of the Dirigo kids. If you're at least my advancing age, you remember the 1980 and '81 Hyde out-of-towners who trounced Jay, Dirigo and everyone else in the Western Maine tournament before winning back-to-back Class C titles over Washington and Katahdin.
It hasn’t changed since, nor will it.
Academies and prep schools will continue to crash the state finals party in every sport sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association. Some will lose. Many will win.
Catherine McAuley carted off its third Class A girls’ championship in 10 years Saturday. Cheverus, McAuley's brother school and Portland neighbor, appeared in its third Class A boys’ final in four years, bowing to Bangor.
Their advertisements are ubiquitous to newspapers and television. We can argue until we’re Dirigo-blue or Hampden-purple in the face whether or not it’s recruiting. Certainly it’s open marketing.
We hear the same squawking about St. Dom’s hockey, NYA field hockey and both those schools’ soccer teams. Not coincidentally, the murmuring grows louder and more bitter when they win.
I’d feel more sorry for the public schools if they weren’t guilty, too.
Bangor, Cony, and yes, the Dirigo girls, all won multiple state titles with at least one player on their roster from five, 10 or 70 miles up the road.
Just last week, we all avoided attaching the Cinderella label to Messalonskee, a No. 8 seed in the Eastern Class A girls’ final. The Eagles’ starting center and point guard both attended a different area school before transferring in mid-career.
In their colossal upset of No. 1 Morse in the quarterfinals, the Eagles beat a team, Morse, whose leading scorer was an exchange student.
Kids leave Lewiston for Edward Little and sometimes go back. Rangeley and Mt. Abram students depart for the larger pond of Mt. Blue, or vice versa, if they’re seeking a more intimate setting.
It happens, and yes, if my publication’s standards would allow it, I’d use the PG-13, bumper sticker phrase instead. Twenty percent of the time, maybe less, there is a legitimate academic reason for the switch. But usually it’s a sports-related move.
Superintendent’s agreements — read, sign-offs — are easier to get than a motor vehicle inspection sticker at Joe’s Jalopy Barn. The administrators would rather acquiesce than argue. You would, too.
The case of Cheverus' Indiana Faithfull against the MPA is all the evidence needed to understand why.
One kid and his family went after an entire organization, challenging what most rational people would consider reasonable rules that have been in place for decades.
It has been tied up in the courts for more than a year with no end in sight.
If the MPA tried to ban prep schools from its tournaments on the basis that not every kid was born in the state or grew up in the community where the campus was built, just imagine the lawsuit(s) and the cries of discrimination.
Until someone furnishes unassailable proof otherwise, we must operate under the assumption that Lee, NYA, Hyde, Cheverus, McAuley and schools with similar missions play by the MPA’s guidelines, whether we like those guidelines or not.
Unfortunately, in this day of a shrinking world, the vanishing middle class, social networking and year-round, non-scholastic basketball entities, that's going to make it more difficult than ever for public schools to compete.
The good news, if you’re Dirigo, is that there’s still something to be said for close-knit community schools where all five starters and the entire 15-man roster have shared the same basketballs, playgrounds and winter colds since elementary school.
Leavitt, Camden Hills, Washburn and Central Aroostook proved it this weekend. Dirigo has demonstrated it by reaching this state final three years in a row, something accomplished by only two other Class C schools since 1956.
Spencer Ross and Arik Fenstermacher will graduate in June. The rest of the Cougars, including four-fifths of the starting lineup, will return in 2012.
Money can buy some things, but experience and team chemistry aren’t among them.
And nothing, but nothing, makes these 84-foot courts more level than that.
Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is email@example.com.