AUGUSTA – Game(s) on.

Eight days of basketball bliss at Augusta Civic Center, Portland Expo and Bangor Auditorium got off the ground in familiar fashion on the capital city’s corner of the triangle.

That is, two classic quarterfinals that sprinted to the wire and left us thirsting for overtime, and two painful-to-watch mismatches that limped through garbage time and left some of us wishing we were quenching our thirst with a frosty mug at 99 up the street.

Standard stuff, really, and all part of the charm that the Heal Points giveth.

What opening night at this basketball geek’s mecca didn’t convey was the tantalizing truth about this year’s tournament: That it could be the best ever.

I know, I know, slapping down those kind of superlatives about high school games with at least a dozen drubbings to go before we sleep is dangerous business.

Still, as far as I’m concerned, you have to throw out any tournament before the Maine Principals’ Association welcomed the girls into the fray in 1975. I must concede with regret that my memory travels back almost that far. And no, nay, never have I been as high about the potential of a postseason as this one.

Fabulous and fun as February vacation week is every year, in any context, the tourney in this Decade of Zeroes has been eminently predictable.

Cony or Nokomis in Eastern A girls. Greely, Mountain Valley or Falmouth in Western B boys. Dirigo wins the Western C girls’ title, followed by Winthrop or Boothbay in the boys’ nightcap. A similar Rangeley girls/Valley boys knockout punch in Class D.

Yawn. No offense to anyone.

Something smells different this year, though, and it’s not the stench of a day-old cold cut sandwich sitting in a concession stand bin. The superpowers are human. Some of the newcomers wield undefeated records or conference championships. Others have senioritis in the best sense of the word.

Much of Augusta’s allure is that it now feels normal to watch Eastern Class A unfold here. And thank goodness those games have been rescued from that allegedly charming, aged dump an hour to the north.

Of course, this year’s boys bracket could be played on an outdoor court in Madawaska and be worth the price of admission and fuel. Simply put, I would not be thunderstruck to see any of the eight teams that take the court in today’s quarterfinals move on and win the whole enchilada.

Can’t say that about the girls’ side of the equation now that the bottom four seeds have packed away their lovely parting gifts. But I can say that Messalonskee has a chance to break the monotony and win a title this week. Oxford Hills has its best team ever and its best chance ever to bind the Cony monolith.

If Portland’s a more convenient commute, well, the Western B boys’ bigshots might be the same as ever. Watching Mountain Valley win for the second year in a row is worth the journey, though, if only because it will be good medicine for the naysayers who believe that Greely’s regular-season routs of Wells and Gray-New Gloucester are somehow worth more than the Falcons’ floggings of Mt. Abram and Lisbon.

Dirigo has crashed Winthrop and Boothbay’s party in the Western C boys’ bonanza. To reclaim their perch at the girls’ summit after a one-year hiccup, the Cougars will have to deal with Jay, Monmouth, Waynflete, Mt. Abram, Madison, maybe even Winthrop. Don’t send that trophy to the engraver yet.

As for the small-town stalwarts from Rangeley and Bingham, they’re merely capable, well-coached faces in the crowd. The smart money is on the Richmond boys, with some rugged resistance from Gould and perhaps Hyde or Elan, and the Hyde girls, with Rangeley and Buckfield lying in the weeds.

If nothing else, those twists and turns will fuel the always entertaining public schools versus private schools debate. Wouldn’t be a real tournament without that.

The bottom line: Not one semifinal or final this year in any class is a foregone conclusion.

Until now, that’s something I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying. If you’re a real high school basketball fan, this is a tournament you shouldn’t dream of missing.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]

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