The Hot Corner: What to watch for at the three-ring circus

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Another year, another nine days of sleeplessness for young athletes and aging reporters.

Tournament week has arrived. It’s a three-ring circus stretched across 150 miles of interstate highway; a monster that seems to get larger and more difficult to tame every year.

Teams change classes. Coaches switch schools. School districts combine, and fans are forced to make their pilgrimage to a new house of hoop worship.

It’s daunting and dizzying if you let it be. But you have connections. I’m here to help.

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Here are some of the story lines that I expect to dominate the discussion as 120 games unfold in Augusta, Portland and Bangor:

• No lead is safe to enjoy. Ever.

Mt. Blue learned that in the most soul-squashing manner Friday afternoon, giving away a 17-point halftime lead and falling in overtime to Skowhegan in the Eastern Class A girls’ quarterfinals. An hour later, Edward Little nearly took the same crash course, giving away most of its 17-point cushion before righting the ship at Hampden’s expense.

I’ve seen more 20-2 runs met with 18-3 responses this year than ever before. Scratching my graying hair in an effort to figure out why that is.

Perhaps psyches — and therefore confidence and comfort zones — are more fragile than ever. Maybe the team in the hole is taking more uncontested 3-pointers thanks to that dadgummed zone defense every coach insists on employing these days.

But the biggest factor this season seems to be a lack of separation in the middle of the pack. There are a few well-oiled machines and a smattering of teams that might inspire Dr. Naismith to roll over in his grave.

For the most part, however, all the teams look a lot alike. They have highs, lows, growing pains and moments of transcendence, sometimes all within the space of a quarter. Great for fans, writers and broadcasters. Not so promising for the life expectancy of coaches.

• Class C isn’t what it used to be.

Sadly, I don’t even need to spend all day Monday and Tuesday at Augusta Civic Center the way I have since Devo topped the pop charts. What was once the Mountain Valley Conference Invitational and one, big, tri-county party has received a tradition-killing makeover.

It’s another unintended or at least un-thought-about-’til-now consequence of the Jay and Livermore Falls merger. You could count on at least three of those schools’ four teams filling up the Western C dance card in Augusta each year.

Now something called Spruce Mountain will send its motorcade to the Portland Expo. It’s not a bad thing, just different. By the time Presidents’ Day afternoon and evening roll around, you’ll agree with me that the atmosphere in Augusta has taken a huge hit.

There is one local team in the Western C boys’ quarterfinals. Uno. Now, thank God it’s Dirigo, a team that’s the strongest lock to win it all since, well, since Adele at the Grammys a week ago.

I’m guaranteed something to write about, but the journey won’t be the same.

If No. 6 Mt. Abram and No. 9 St. Dom’s are shown the door Tuesday — an outcome that is conceivable enough to be sniffed — then Androfrankford teams will be shut out of the Western C girls’ semifinals for the first time since … probably … ever.

• By the end of next week, we will be well versed in all things Magnusson.

The husband-and-wife team of Travis (Dirigo boys) and Karen (Cony girls) could be beaming with pride as their teams triumphantly hoist regional championship trophies a week from now.

Each leads the team that is the odds-on favorite in its region. Counting the conference championship games they won, Dirigo and Cony are a combined 38-1 after the Rams’ Eastern Class A quarterfinal win over Bangor on Friday night.

Both have prospered while accepting a tough act to follow. Travis follows three coaches — Gavin Kane, Dave Gerrish and Rebecca Fletcher — who led the Dirigo boys to consecutive Western C titles. Karen inherited the Cony girls’ program a few years back from a legend, Paul Vachon, who won 11 Eastern Maine titles there.

Spend five minutes with either coach and his or her team and it’s easy to see that the Magnussons have a rapport with their players that is letter-perfect for this generation of athletes. They’re young, they’re enthusiastic and they’re the right coach at the right time for each program.

In a climate where good coaches are hard to find and even tougher to keep, we can only hope Maine high school basketball is fortunate enough to have Mr. and Mrs. Mags until they’re old and gray.

• Eastern A isn’t as wild and wacky as you’ve heard.

The coaches have beaten the drum since their preseason meeting, and yes, we in the media have served up the background music. Seven different teams could win it all, the consensus has declared. These quarterfinals could be the best ever, it has been said.

Maybe. Just don’t risk the ranch on it.

Over the final three weeks of the regular season, it was easy to see Hampden, Lewiston and Mt. Blue playing the best ball.

Lawrence is a team that traditionally plays better than its seed when it gets to the tournament, and that seed is No. 4, for Mike McGee’s sake. The Bulldogs dismantled Bangor late in the season.

EL is a scary opponent for Lewiston under any circumstances. And Brunswick beat Mt. Blue, something that should at least give the Cougars food for thought.

But do I think any of those lower seeds will win today? No sir.

Then again, maybe I’m already dizzy.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is koakes@sunjournal.com.

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