Just a few days remain until the high point of the annual high school basketball season — tournament time.

Players have been battling since the start of preseason practices in late November for the opportunity to realize a championship dream, all played out before thousands of spectators in the state’s major arenas.

With those high stakes comes the gamut of emotions from celebration to disappointment, all experienced not only within the confines of a basketball court, but also as governed by the rules of the game and the spirit of good sportsmanship.

But just as there are fights in the final seconds of a Super Bowl and bench-clearing brawls at Major League Baseball games, Maine high school basketball is not immune to a competition gone too far.

At least two well-publicized incidents in recent weeks — one involving excessive rough play at a boys game in Lincoln and the second an in-game verbal altercation between Calais girls teammates — have led to an examination of behavior on high school basketball courts from Traip Academy in Kittery to Community High School in Fort Kent.

And the prevailing sense among those who play or oversee the games is that, while there are exceptions, sportsmanship is in good health in Maine.

“I think those things are very minimal in Maine basketball,” said Pearson Cost, a senior on the Brunswick High School boys basketball team. “There’s always some smack talking between players, but I’ve always felt like Maine basketball has been very sportsmanlike. Sportsmanship is one of the things that most coaches focus on.”

Standout Bangor High School senior forward Mary Butler said she feels the relationship between her team and its opponents is “respectful.”

A high energy atmosphere

High school basketball presents challenges for those most interested in maintaining decorum in the sport, particularly its close-quarters physical layout in a gymnasium combined with the fast pace of the game and often large, vocal crowds.

“Basketball’s somewhat unique in the fact that you’re in such an enclosed place, inside with a lot of fans right on top of you,” said Todd Hanson, a star basketball player at Waterville High School during the mid-1980s who now is in his 19th season as the boys varsity coach at Brunswick High. “It’s an emotional game, and those emotions sometimes spill over but I would say that for more than the most part the behavior has been consistent with what it’s always been.”

Then add in the intense nature of the sport within those tight confines, and the challenge for teenage players and their coaches can be as much about self-discipline as it is about executing the fundamentals.

“It gets very competitive out there, especially when you get into a rivalry game or play teams that are close by or teams you’ve played and had close games with,” Cost said. “Tensions run high, both teams really want to win, and the atmosphere at some of the schools with the fans real close to you adds to that.”

Cost acknowledged that sometimes the intensity of a matchup leads to conversation among opponents.

“There’s a lot of talking between players between the teams on the court, and where you see it the most is during foul shots players talk to each other,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s always bad, sometimes it’s nice, but there’s always some smack talking out there, especially when there are bad fan sections.

“Our league, especially the last few years, has been very competitive and any team can beat any other team on any given day. It’s very competitive but I haven’t seen it go past trash talking.”

Nate Burns, a four-year player at Piscataquis Community High School of Guilford who has played in more than 70 varsity games during his career, shares a similar sentiment.

“It gets pretty intense sometimes and it can get physical, but I can’t really say that it’s changed that much,” he said. “It’s pretty much been the same for me since I’ve been playing. I don’t really get into that stuff, and if someone else starts talking back I just tell them to knock it off because it’s not worth it.”

Van Buren girls basketball coach Matt Rossignol said he has seen his share of physical play in his 23 years of coaching both boys and girls teams “but I had never seen it to that extent” referring to the Mattanawcook-Houlton situation.

“Some teams played physical against Parise but nobody tried to hurt her,” Rossignol said, referring to his daughter who starred at Van Buren and is now a freshman on the University of Maine’s basketball team.

The technical aspect

Approximately 5,400 high school basketball games are played each winter, according to Maine basketball commissioner Peter Webb.

That number includes boys and girls varsity, junior varsity and freshman regular-season contests, exhibition games and tournament play.

While final numbers aren’t in for the 2014-15 regular season, Webb estimates approximately 175 technical fouls will be issued to players, coaches and other bench personnel in those 5,400 games — or 0.0324 technical fouls per game.

“If you only look at the number of 175 you might say that it’s too much, it’s out of hand,” said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees interscholastic sports in the state. “But when you think of the number of games that are played and how many athletes and coaches are involved, 175 is still too many but you’re able to put that number in perspective.

“My take is that the amount of inappropriate behavior is no more or less than it has been,” Durost added. “I went to high school in the mid-60s and there were inappropriate things that occurred back then, too.”

Webb said the number of technical fouls has inched up slightly during the last decade, but considers it one small example of a larger societal trend.

“It is greater in the last several years,” Webb said. “But there’s also more people who speak back to the police when they’re stopped, so I don’t think it’s unique to basketball.

“You’re looking at roughly 5,400 games in a season, and night after night after night the worst I receive is a technical foul report. It speaks well of the coaches because initially that’s where it starts and stops, and it speaks well of the kids and everyone else involved.”

Webb, a longtime national and international officiating clinician, rules interpreter and official with the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials who is a voting member of the 10-member National Federation of State High School Association rules committee, sees approximately 140 high school games a season, including numerous out-of-state contests along the East Coast through his responsibilities to International Association of Approved Basketball Officials.

He said Maine’s basketball environment compares favorably to other states.

Webb credits coordination among coaches, athletic administrators, school administrators and the MPA for their collective emphasis on sportsmanship at game sites.

Social media’s influence

One area of life off the court that has had both positive and negative effects on the court is the evolution of social media.

Many high school students have a Twitter account for instant communication with friends or rivals, as well as access to game results or any incidents that may take place during a game and may be spread globally in just moments.

In the incident that took place during a basketball game at Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln last month, for example, video clips showing rough play were downloaded onto Facebook, sparking a weekend of rumination across social media sites before school officials took disciplinary action once classes resumed the following Monday.

“I saw the videos [of the MA-Houlton game] and, obviously, it wasn’t a good situation,” Piscataquis Community girls coach Brian Gaw said.

But Gaw also said people who didn’t attend the game based their beliefs on the 45-50 seconds of video showing the two fouls.

Gaw emphasized he doesn’t condone the behavior but pointed out that “it’s a 32-minute game so nobody knows what else went on [leading up to the incidents].”

John Bapst High School girls basketball coach Mike Webb observed that “there is a lot of scrutiny put on high school basketball in the state. It seems to be the spotlight sport. It gets the attention. Maybe we’ve got to do a better job as coaches and administrators talking to our kids and telling them that kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.”

Hanson said it’s disturbing to hear about the recent incidents but doesn’t “think things have changed too much.

“I think what’s changed is the technology that’s allowed this stuff to become accessed instantly. With what happened in Lincoln, literally within seconds the whole world knew about it because it was posted online, and within a couple of hours I was able to watch the video that was posted on social media,” he added. “It allowed me down in Brunswick to see what had happened up in Lincoln just a couple of hours earlier.”

Social media also provides an avenue for continuing conversations among players and fans for both better and worse.

Often it creates a chance for players from rival communities who may play together on offseason teams to keep updated with each other, with a side effect of that perhaps a less tense atmosphere when they represent their schools on the basketball court during the winter.

“Between AAU basketball and social media, the kids can talk back and forth with each other so much easier now,” said veteran Piscataquis of Guilford coach Jamie Russell. “I think there are still rivalries out there, but at PCHS and Dexter we have kids who now play on the same AAU team so the interactions between those kids before the game and during the game and after the game are different than they were 10 or 15 years ago just because they can talk to each other easier, they see each other a lot, they can tweet each other, they can email each other, they can text each other, and they do.

“I would like to think that because of that maybe there’s even less tension between some of the schools and some of the kids.”

One downside of social media communications, say those involved in high school basketball, are the unfiltered comments, from adults and teenagers alike, that perpetuate trash talking or are otherwise critical of the players.

“Social media is an outlet for people who need to blow off steam after a loss and give an excuse for losing,” Cost said. “Instead of taking it out on the other team on the court, they can take to Twitter and say that the refs blew the game or something else. Social media can be an excuse outlet for those guys.

“With social media friendships are built, but also enemies are built.”

Tourney time looms

Tourney organizers and potential participants around the state are optimistic that Maine’s 2015 sporting rite of winter will be exciting yet uneventful — save for perhaps some consternation with Mother Nature’s potential impact on the schedule.

When the 2015 high school basketball tournament begins in earnest next weekend, Durost — a former high school basketball player, teacher, administrator and the MPA’s leader since 2001 — hopes participants and fans alike appreciate the event for the positives it offers to everyone involved.

“Think about what it’s like to be part of one of those magic nights when everybody is reasonably well behaved, when there’s that electricity in the air, and when you’ve got two teams on the court with the coaches and officials all performing at a high level,” Durost said.

“I would just ask people to recognize all of the good that can come out of that experience for the kids who are competing and everyone else who’s there on a given day and not be part of something that leads to a situation where people go away from it and don’t feel good about being there,” he said.

Certainly the players are ready, largely as they always have been.

“I feel that people like to compare eras based on talent levels, and naturally that has ebbs and flows and highs and lows,” Hanson said. “Some years there are more talented kids than others, but that’s remained pretty much consistent over the years. In terms of behavior, I really haven’t seen a big difference here in southern Maine over the years. I’d say 99 percent of the kids play hard and exhibit good sportsmanship.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...