The challenges are many as the annual high school basketball tournaments begin today when Leavitt of Turner Center tips off against Messalonskee of Oakland in a Class A quarterfinal shortly after 3 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.
That will be followed by the 5 p.m. start of the Class B girls quarterfinal between Medomak Valley of Waldoboro and Presque Isle at the Bangor Auditorium.
Those mark the first of 120 games statewide spanning more than two weeks as teams from Traip Academy in Kittery to Fort Kent and from Forest Hills in Jackman to Lubec seek to live the state championship dream.
So many pitfalls lay between the exhilaration of merely qualifying to play on the big stage and the late-night parades that bring the gold balls home — the first of which is good health.
Flu and related symptoms have run rampant through the region’s schools during the last few days, and no one has proven immune.
Take the unbeaten Camden Hills of Rockport boys team, the favorite in Eastern B. The Windjammers won the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B championship game over Rockland on Saturday despite the absence of sophomore point guard Graham Safford, out with the flu.
By Tuesday, 11 of the 15 Windjammers missed school for the same reason, and only two players were able to turn out for an after-school shootaround, according to Camden Hills coach Jeff Hart.
All but three of the players were back at school Wednesday, but health and conditioning remained a concern.
“I’m glad we didn’t have a prelim game,” said Hart, “because we would have been in trouble.”
How teams overcome the illnesses of the season will be just one of many storylines to be played out in Bangor, Augusta and Portland between today and Feb. 28, when the final state championship games are played.
That’s right — no tournament games in March.
The Eastern B, C and D tournament also begins with a slight change. Organizers have opted for a three-game set on Friday that begins at 5 p.m. and moved a fourth game to Saturday as part of a seven-game day in an effort to make those games more accessible to fans that previously had been shut out of 3 p.m. starts on Friday due to school or job commitments.
Of course, most of the Eastern Maine stories concern the teams and the players.
Will the remaining unbeatens, Camden Hills and Class D Fort Fairfield on the boys side, Class B Waterville and Class D Woodland on the girls side, be able to keep their perfect seasons intact?
Who will match the memorable shots of 2008, like Katahdin of Stacyville’s Kali Rush’s high-arching prayer from behind the backboard as time expired in overtime to lift the ninth-ranked Cougars past top-seeded Washburn in a Class D girls quarterfinal? Or like Central Aroostook of Mars Hill’s Manny Martinez, the 5-foot-6 guard who lofted a shot over oncoming 6-foot-10 Richmond center Marc Zaharchuk in the final seconds to give coach Tim Brewer’s Panthers their third Class D boys state title in the last four years?
And what of the defending Eastern Maine champions: Bangor, Maranacook of Readfield, Calais and Central Aroostook on the boys side; Oxford Hills of South Paris, Waterville, Lee Academy and Woodland on the girls side? Only Lee is not back to defend its title, and championship experience certainly is a valuable commodity that will make any of these teams a tough opponent.
Who will be this year’s Cinderella stories? Foxcroft Academy, with a 5-49 record over the previous three seasons, is 12-7 this winter after entering the Class B boys playoffs as the 13th seed and upending No. 4 Caribou by a point in The County on Wednesday night? Or how about the Bangor Christian boys, who were 1-8 and languishing in 21st place in Eastern D at midseason. The Patriots were still 3-11 entering the stretch run, but four straight wins landed them in the prelims, and a victory at No. 8 Easton now gives the resurgent Patriots a chance to test top-seeded Fort Fairfield in the quarterfinals.
And who could root against the Lubec girls, whose 13 wins so far this winter represent approximately one victory for every three students at one of the smallest public high schools in the state. The Hornets will be back in Bangor for the first time in five years but like the Bangor Christian boys must face an undefeated quarterfi-nal opponent in perennial power Woodland.
And which teams will emerge from highly competitive Eastern A boys and girls fields? The Edward Little of Auburn boys and Skowhegan girls are the top seeds, but plenty of other contenders — including two-time defending regional champion Bangor and a Brewer team coming off a breakthrough season on the boys side — are in line to make this one of the more wide-open large-school tournaments of recent vintage.