BANGOR, Maine — As a new five-class format for Maine high school basketball earned final approval from the Maine Principals’ Association general membership last spring, the work toward its implementation was just beginning.

Suddenly some athletic conferences around the state had schools scattered among three different classes.

While the Heal point differential between classes used to determine regular-season seedings in the sport had been reduced concurrently with the shift from four classes to five in an effort to promote more inter-class competition, the history of such games being played statewide was spotty.

And with athletic conferences somewhat territorial by nature, the challenge of adapting varsity schedules to the changing high school basketball landscape seemed formidable, particularly in time for the upcoming season, which begins Friday night.

But three of the state’s more prominent conferences — the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, the Southwestern Maine Activities Association and the Western Maine Conference — have developed new or expanded partnerships in their mutual quest to best serve their respective memberships in overcoming scheduling quandaries.

The result is cross-conference games among schools from the three leagues in order to provide more fruitful matchups among opponents that normally wouldn’t meet before tournament time in February while addressing geographic issues that arose from the new statewide format.

“We were hoping that one thing that would come out of this was that leagues would open up and look to other schools within their classification,” Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director Gerry Durgin said. “In other words, instead of having a B school play an all-A schedule, you would hope that the B school could look to another league or leagues and say, ‘Are you guys willing to open up some B schedules as well.’

“Obviously they have been and are doing that now.”

Bangor’s northern dilemma

The impetus for the expanded relationship between the KVAC and the SMAA — members already compete in such sports as football and ice hockey — stemmed in great part from the presence of Bangor High School in the new Class AA, made up of the state’s largest basketball-playing schools.

While Bangor is located near the center of the state, it is a geographic outlier among Class AA programs — the Rams’ nearest rivals are Lewiston and Edward Little of Auburn, both 100 miles away.

So when the four largest KVAC basketball schools — Bangor, EL, Lewiston and Oxford Hills of South Paris — were placed by enrollment in the otherwise all-SMAA Class AA, Bangor had few scheduling options that would not require a varsity road trip of at least 2½ hours.

The ultimate answer, Bangor officials hoped, would strike a balance between traditional opponents and the new reality of what teams the Rams might face at the Class AA North tournament in Augusta.

Work within the conference — perhaps aided by the change in the Heal point differential from five points to two between each class — enabled Bangor to maintain its neighboring home-and-home rivalries with Class A Brewer and Hampden Academy as well as play one game apiece against Lawrence of Fairfield and Messalonskee of Oakland, also KVAC Class A programs approximately one hour away.

Two games each against EL, Lewiston and Oxford Hills brought Bangor to 12 regular-season contests, leaving six games remaining to be scheduled.

That’s where the SMAA came in, providing Bangor and the other KVAC Class AA teams three home games and three road contests each against some of the state’s southernmost Class AA teams.

“There was a lot of legwork that went into it, but ultimately we came up with a schedule that seemed to meet the needs of schools all around the state,” Thornton Academy of Saco athletic administrator Gary Stevens said. “It’s created some cross-conference scheduling, and hopefully will let us create some new relationships with each other.”

The SMAA had to approve a change in its constitution to allow its schools to play out-of-conference games, but in the end those new contests will serve at least dual purposes — filling out each team’s 18-game schedule while providing some familiarity for each program against teams they might face in postseason play.

“I think it’s important that we got some games against the other [AA North] teams,” Lewiston athletic administrator Jason Fuller said. “If we didn’t see them during the year I don’t think it would create the same energy for the tournament. I know the SMAA wanted to play us, and it’s worked out great, I think everybody’s pretty excited that we have some games down there.

“But the priority was to maintain our league, and if we were going to maintain the KVAC we’re going to have to play some of our Class A schools, too. Plus, there’s some great rivalries you don’t want to lose whether they’re in A or AA. If it’s a team or community you’ve competed against over the years I think we needed to maintain those rivalries.”

Bangor’s games against SMAA foes will be home contests against Deering of Portland, Windham and Thornton Academy and road games against Portland High School, Cheverus of Portland and Gorham.

The four KVAC Class AA schools are joined by Portland, Cheverus, Windham and Deering in the new Class AA North.

“It was a tough thing, there’s no question, because I can’t change my location and I can’t change my enrollment, but it worked out great,” Bangor athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine sad. “There were a lot of people that were convinced this might be bad, but it ends up being very positive for us. We have a schedule that’s representative of where we should be.”

Bangor’s SMAA games are scheduled around weekends and holidays, and in all but one case they involve varsity and junior varsity contests.

“It’s kept our JV schedule largely intact,” Vanidestine, whose school’s home games with Deering on Dec. 19 will be a boys and girls varsity doubleheader, said. “I thought it was important that the JVs got to see Portland, Cheverus, Thornton and those schools so that as they go through the program if they play on the varsity at some point they will have seen them before and it won’t be a shock.”

Bangor’s new varsity-junior varsity schedule essentially replaces trips to Brunswick, Mount Ararat of Topsham and Cony of Augusta with three trips to Greater Portland, while the school’s freshman basketball schedules will be more localized.

Vanidestine estimated the financial impact of the new schedule on his school’s transportation budget for sports would be modest.

“With everything else we’re doing and having a freshman schedule more local where in some cases where we won’t travel, I would say there’s definitely some cost to it but I don’t think it’s significant,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a budget problem where we would be so concerned about it that we would just take the varsitys.

“I think we’re going to be well within a normal budget year.”

Edward Little, Lewiston and Oxford Hills have adopted similar varsity schedules that include six SMAA games and six games against KVAC Class A opponents.

“We knew if it was going to be good for Edward Little, Lewiston and Oxford Hills it had to be good for Bangor, too, both on our end and the SMAA’s end,” said Lincoln Academy of Newcastle athletic administrator K.J. Anastasio, one of the chief negotiators during the process on behalf of the KVAC. “But the SMAA schools were willing players from the get-go and that was the beginning of the [WMC] wanting to participate as well.”

A cooperative venture

Similar cross-conference scheduling changes are in store for SMAA Class A South teams Biddeford, Marshwood of South Berwick and Westbrook and KVAC Class B South schools Maranacook of Readfield, Spruce Mountain of Jay and Lincoln Academy of Newcastle — with the Western Maine Conference that fields entries in both classes the key teammate.

Biddeford, Marshwood and Westbrook will play the WMC’s Class A South schools and each other at least once apiece with additional games within the SMAA, Stevens said.

The KVAC Class B South schools each will play four games — two home and two on the road — against WMC opponents, then fill out their schedules against KVAC Class A and B opponents.

Lincoln Academy, for instance, will face WMC foes Lake Region of Naples, Gray-New Gloucester, Wells and Yarmouth.

“I was amazed at how seamless it went with the conversations with the Western Maine Conference and SMAA,” Anastasio said. “There was no hesitation. They understand that with the Heal points the way they are that it was time to let’s see if we can’t make the best of it.

“Once we brought it to the KVAC and explained that these conferences were welcoming us with open arms, it was an opportunity we didn’t want to pass up.”

Cooperation among the KVAC, WMC and SMAA also includes Class A South, where KVAC programs Brunswick, Mount Ararat, Morse of Bath and Leavitt of Turner Center will have two crossover games against schools from each of the other conferences in addition to 14 KVAC games.

Brunswick, for example, will play one game each against SMAA foes Kennebunk and Biddeford and one game apiece against Greely of Cumberland Center and Falmouth from the WMC.

“Are there wrinkles that we may not have thought of yet?” Anastasio said. “Of course. But on paper I think we have a very good system right in front of us and it came together very quickly.”

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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...