Fans have a way to keep spirits up

Posted Jan. 08, 2009, at 9:31 p.m.

The Eastern Maine high school basketball tournament begins five weeks from today.

Seems like quite a while from now, given how the temperature and temperament of Mother Nature has us already in the midst of the dark days of winter.

Before you know it, stories about Seasonal Affective Disorder will deluge the television screens, newspaper pages and Web sites of the region.

Experts in the field will tell us the obvious, that we all have a better disposition on a sunny day than we do when the skies are cloudy and the walkway and the end of the driveway remain to be shoveled — as was the case as this was being written.

But who’s grumpy?

In fact, here’s a pick-you-up suggestion for the casual basketball fan currently in a waiting mode for tourney time — check out a rivalry game.

Find a schedule and look for a game between neighboring towns that supposedly don’t get along about a lot of things but share a special degree of animosity when it comes to their high school sports teams.

These are the towns that when talk comes to possible consolidation won’t even agree on joint school colors, like the story about when officials from two high schools were contemplating a joint future and a guy from one of the schools suggested a color-coordinated compromise — “how ’bout we use our blue and your white?”

Suffice it to say, consolidation won’t come easy, challenged not only by debates both economic and educational but by the tradition of competition.

Fortunately three lengthy road trips over the last few days provided the chance to check out three spirited high school basketball rivalries — Sumner of East Sullivan at Narraguagus of Harrington, Washington Academy of East Machias at Calais, and Schenck of East Millinocket at Stearns of Millinocket.

Each was as much a social event as a battle for bragging rights, with full gymnasiums meaning some people were seeing each other for the first time since crossing paths while Christmas shopping, or perhaps for the first time since their teams met last winter.

And there were more kids — high school kids, middle-school kids and younger kids — in the stands than probably there were at 10 or 12 large-school games witnessed before them combined.

The older kids were expressing their high school wit at the expense of the visiting teams, the younger kids were just being kids, eating popcorn and generally just running around — and in one case waiting for their turn playing in front of the big crowd at halftime.

In all three cases the atmosphere was electric, and for the majority of the players these will be the largest crowds they will play before in the lives — save for the Bangor Auditorium in five weeks.

And in all three cases the players didn’t crumble under that pressure.

Generally they thrived, and while all three home teams — Narraguagus, Calais and Stearns — left the court victorious, the teams that returned home unfulfilled all performed well enough to believe payback will be sweet when they meet again, next time at Sumner, Washington Academy and Schenck.

While I don’t know if I’ll make those rematches, I’d recommend those or most any other high school basketball rivalry game to anyone willing to make a road trip for a break from the winter doldrums.

They sure beat sitting in front of one of those fancy lights trying to remember what the sun looks like.

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