Penobscot Valley High School basketball fans cheer on their team during the 2019 Class C girls state championship game in Bangor. The MPA has changed some of its quarterfinal game formats and has altered ticket prices.  Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

While the high school basketball postseason during the COVID-19 era will continue to be a day-to-day proposition, much like the 2021-22 regular season, here are four storylines to consider with the return of the statewide tournament after a year’s absence.

What will be the impact of the pandemic on this year’s tourney?

The implementation of the open tournament format has enabled teams around the state to cancel regular-season games, if necessary, due to COVID issues at their schools and within their teams. They don’t face the typical Maine Principals’ Association penalty for canceling games once the season has started — being suspended from play for two years.

While most teams tried to squeeze in as many of their games as possible, some were unable to play their entire schedules. That impacts both the final Heal Points and tournament rankings.

The fall sports playoffs, with all activities except volleyball contested outdoors, fared remarkably well. Only one first-round football playoff game was canceled.

This winter, teams often competed with undermanned rosters as players recovered from COVID. That meant some results were different than the anticipated outcomes of games between teams with full rosters.

In some cases, teams finished their seasons ranked higher or lower than expected during a COVID-free season and will face a much different path to tourney success.

Could that create more upset potential and perhaps open the championship door for a Cinderella or two? Time will tell.

Will fans flock back to the tournament?

After losing the 2021 tournament to COVID-19, the sponsoring MPA and businesses in the host cities certainly hope high school basketball fans will fill the four arenas that host the tournament — the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, the Augusta Civic Center and the Portland Exposition Building and Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.

It’s hard to predict turnout based on crowds during the regular season, as many schools limited the gatherings to less than 100 percent of the gym capacity in order to space the fans out to some degree.

There’s also still the lingering thought among many people that given the continuing presence of COVID, they’d prefer not to be in larger crowds, or not have to wear masks for long periods of time, which tournament attendance would require. The venues in Portland — the Cross Insurance Arena and the Portland Expo — will require fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative  COVID test within 72 hours of a game. At the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and the Augusta Civic Center, there will not be vaccination requirements but fans must wear masks.

The live streaming of regular-season games provided fans a viable option for the last two winters. And as they have grown accustomed to that, it may become an easier choice to watch the tournament the same way — from the comfort of an easy chair — this year.

For the participants’ sake, hopefully the latest variant of the coronavirus will have abated enough by tourney time to entice thousands of tourney fans back to the arenas.

There are few atmospheres like it for both student-athletes and high school sports fans in Maine.

The Nokomis factor

One of the biggest attractions to the Augusta Civic Center during Tourney 2022 will be the boys basketball team from Nokomis Regional High School Newport.

The Warriors have been the top high school hoops story since the first day of preseason, with 6-foot-7 freshman wing Cooper Flagg stepping onto the court as one of the top-ranked players in the Class of 2025 around the country based on his play on the regional and national travel basketball scenes.

Many observers already consider Flagg one of the best high school players ever to compete in the Pine Tree State with his unique blend of guard skills, size and athleticism.

Add twin brother Ace Flagg, a 6-6 power forward, and Nokomis boasts a frontcourt pairing that has immediately placed the Warriors among the state’s top teams regardless of class, let alone their home in Class A North.

Add in the excitement of blocked shots, fast breaks and slam dunks to a strong defensive foundation and coach Earl Anderson’s team is likely to attract many casual fans, perhaps in numbers not seen since the days of Cindy Blodgett and Andy Bedard during the 1990s.

The cast of contenders

Maine was the lone New England state fortunate enough to crown its 2020 high school basketball state champions before the coronavirus took hold.

The most recent Northern Maine boys champions from that year are Edward Little of Auburn (Class AA), Hampden Academy (A), Caribou (B), Dexter (C) and Machias (D), with Edward Little, Hampden and Caribou going on to win 2020 state titles.

How those teams might fare in their return to the tournament this year will vary. Edward Little and Machias may be the best bets regionally, with both teams featuring a veteran presence from two years ago and spending most if not all of this season atop their divisional standings.

Dexter is likely to contend for the Class C North crown again, while Hampden Academy is now in Class AA and Caribou is rebuilding after its back-to-back titles in 2019 and 2020.

Other teams that will be in contention for North supremacy include several schools for whom 2021 might have been their year but for the cancellation of the tournament, teams such as Class A Brewer and Class B Ellsworth.

Other teams poised to challenge include Oxford Hills and Portland in Class AA, Nokomis in Class A, Foxcroft Academy and Orono in Class B, Fort Kent in Class C and Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook in Class D.

But with the coronavirus already having shuffled lineups and schedules throughout the regular season and still capable of doing more, prognosticating champions before the games are played this February seems like a foolhardy endeavor.

The return of the tournament should be satisfying enough.

See this Section as it appeared in print here

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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...