Workers install the basketball floor Tuesday at the Augusta Civic Center. A crew from the city’s Bureau of Parks & Recreation joined Civic Center employees in putting in the floor, pulling out bleachers and installing guardrails to get ready for the high school basketball tournament. The Maine Principals’ Association tournament starts this Friday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

There were no crowds last year. No bands. No fevered student sections. No game-changing plays with a deafening roar to accompany them.

The Maine state basketball tournament was a COVID-19 casualty a season ago. Now it’s back, and with the action set to begin, the players and coaches are thankful to have the chance to compete again after seeing a year without it.

“For most guys, this is kind of what you dream about when you play varsity basketball,” Cony boys coach T.J. Maines said. “Getting to the tournament and having the fans there, the crowd, and trying to win. It’s the kind of thing that’ll build memories that last a lifetime, so I’m just glad our kids are going to get to have that opportunity.”

With the Class A North, C South and D South tournaments set to start at the Augusta Civic Center and the B North and B South tournaments getting under way at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and Banks Exposition Building in Portland, respectively, teams will go back into the competitive environment they’ve longed for. They’ll be in masks, a reminder that COVID-19 concerns still linger, but the differences will likely end there.

“I think it’s going to look like it always has,” Gardiner girls coach Mike Gray said. “I just think we’re going to have huge crowds all week in there, for every session. I think people really missed it.”

Winthrop boys coach Todd MacArthur said there was a hole left by the tournament not happening last year.


“There was a huge void,” he said. “We made the most of it (with the Central Maine Tournament), but to be able to have high school basketball back in the tournament, at the Civic Center or at Bangor or down at the Expo, that’s what Maine high school basketball’s all about.”

MacArthur said he’s looking forward to the challenge of trying to make it through another C South bracket, which the Ramblers were able to do the last two times it was played.

“I’m just happy to have the grind back,” he said. “We all have a common goal now, and we have to go through that process. … I’m looking forward to the next week and a half or so of grinding and getting these kids prepared for their opponents.”

Skowhegan Area High School sophomore River Hawk mascot, Navaeh Liddell, 15, checks her phone with her friend Delena Cabral, 15, outside the gymnasium before a Feb. 10 game against Gardiner. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Skowhegan senior Jaycie Christopher said the return of the tournament has a historic importance to her.

“It means everything,” she said. “I was probably 6 years old and we went to a game, and Skowhegan won the regional final at the buzzer to go to the state game. That was the moment where I (knew) that’s something I wanted to be a part of. … To be able to have another opportunity to bring Skowhegan its first Gold Ball is just special.”

With the tournament in action again, there are unique storylines to attract fans beyond the competition they missed last year. In the A North boys bracket, Cooper Flagg’s presence brings an unusually talented player to the field. And in the A North girls bracket, in addition to the normal drama provided by the teams, there is star power at the individual level as well in Skowhegan’s Christopher, Gardiner’s Lizzy Gruber, Lawrence’s Hope Bouchard and Cony’s Indiya Clarke. Christopher (Boston University) and Clarke (Wofford) have already committed to Division I schools, and Gruber and Bouchard either can or will join them.


“That’s been kind of a theme all year,” Gray said. “There are good teams, but there are also good teams that have really special players.”

Gray said he expects that to add even more intrigue to what is always a closely contested regional tournament.

Nokomis players and fans react during a Jan. 28 basketball game at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Absolutely. It’s obviously not the same as (Flagg) … but I think you’re going to get the random basketball fan from a different community who maybe doesn’t get a chance to see Lizzy Gruber or Jaycie Christopher or any of these other kids,” he said. “Indiya Clarke, a lot of people have never seen her play. I think you’re going to get a lot of people coming back over and over again to the Civic Center just to see what it’s about with these players.”

Also back with the tournament’s return are all the storylines that are an annual part of it. Comebacks and last-minute heroics are part of the tournament fabric, as are teams trying to cap off perfect seasons with unblemished tournament runs — a role this year filled by the Skowhegan girls in A North, the Hall-Dale girls in C South and the Forest Hills boys in D South.

There are also, however, the upsets that remind fans annually of the unpredictability of the playoffs. This postseason is only now reaching the quarterfinal stage and there have already been some stunners, like the 3-15 Messalonskee boys winning in A North, the 12th-seeded Mount View girls beating No. 5 Waterville in B North, the No. 15 Boothbay boys beating No. 2 Old Orchard Beach in C South and the 10th-seeded Brunswick boys beating an A South dark horse in Kennebunk.

More could be coming.

“You always feel like you have a chance. We’ve seen it time and time again,” Maines said. “I know from personal experience, anything can happen.”

Now, after two years, it’s time for the games to begin.

“If we didn’t develop an appreciation for what we had before the pandemic, then we sure had better (have one) now,” MacArthur said. “We lost a lot. To have it back is going to be great.”

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