Almanacs and other publications given to long-range weather predictions generally consider a New England winter’s back to have been broken — at least in the mind’s eye — by the final day of February. Baseball fans are more apt to consider that milestone reached when the Boston Red Sox equipment truck leaves Fenway Park in early February, bound for Red Sox Nation’s spring training complex in Florida.
By contrast, true north-country Mainers — though happy to see the Red Sox baggage head southward — set the date for winter’s tipping point in this neck of the woods to coincide with the opening of the annual eastern Maine high school basketball tournaments at the storied Bangor Auditorium.
By such reckoning, the 2011 version of that point arrived at 5 p.m. Friday, when a referee in a zebra-striped shirt let loose the hounds by tossing up a basketball at midcourt to begin a Class B quarterfinal game matching the Caribou and Medomak Valley girls teams.
By the time tournament fever abates in a week, 48 eastern Maine teams in Classes B, C and D, both genders — and a like number participating in the western Maine tournaments for those classes at Augusta and Portland — will have competed for regional titles and the opportunity to play for state championships, east versus west, a week later. The Eastern Maine Class A tournament for larger schools will be held at the Augusta Civic Center; the Western Maine Class A tournament at Portland.
In rural Maine, tournament week is a swell chance for the homesteaders to get out of Dodge and recharge their batteries for the coming push to mud season — a time to whoop it up in behalf of the local kids when they take to the auditorium floor, soak up the spirited tournament atmosphere in a venerable old building that may not be around much longer, renew old acquaintances from tournaments past, shop till they drop, and perhaps top off the day at a favorite restaurant or watering hole.
Up from deepest Down East and midcoast villages the hordes will come, and down from The County, primed for their annual wintertime attitude-adjustment session. From Penobscot River towns to rural Piscataquis districts to communities on the shores of the Kennebec, diverse crowds will descend upon the auditorium to support hometown athletes competing for their allotted 15 minutes of earthly fame.
Some teams will arrive undefeated, or nearly so, in the regular season. Others will check in with records hovering around the so-so mark, a few having made the cut through winning a pre-tournament play-in game by the skin of their teeth.
The long shots seeking tournament glory will compete every bit as hard as the heavily favored — perhaps harder, knowing the odds for success are stacked against them. And if an underdog should dramatically upset a team that the experts have picked to dominate the playoffs, it will be a valuable lesson learned for both teams, as well as the experts, and part of what makes the tournaments special.
Pep bands and team mascots will liven up the joint; athletic cheerleading squads performing complicated routines will add a touch of adventure; and the antacid franchise will be one to die for as hard-shell fans load up on concession-stand hot dogs and popcorn. Meanwhile, out on the basketball court talented athletes of both genders, of varying sizes and shapes, will show off moves once thought impossible for those of such tender life experience.
The 3-point basket — the best thing to happen to the game of basketball since rims and nets replaced hanging peach baskets as shooters’ targets — will likely be a factor in many of the playoff games. Should some 3-pointers come as winning shots at the final buzzer of down-to-the-wire games, the bedlam ensuing from the thrill of victory on one side of the court will make the agony of defeat on the other side of the hall ever more painful.
Both agony and euphoria will dissipate over time, however, each condition morphing into fond memories of the tournament experience that will last athletes and fans forever. And after the state championship games, no matter what the calendar or Mother Nature might have to say about winter’s duration, it will be unofficially over. No more high school basketball, no more winter. It’s as simple as that.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.