FARMINGTON — Hopes will be high for the Mt. Blue High School boys basketball team this winter as it seeks its first Eastern Maine Class A championship since 1997.
But getting to see the highly regarded Cougars play their home games could be more problematic for their fans, as the high school gymnasium is not available and the team instead will play at the local middle school — which has an anticipated seating capacity of approximately 325 that is barely a third of the capacity at the team’s usual home court.
“I think the gym will be crowded,” said longtime Mt. Blue boys basketball coach Jim Bessey. “It has to give you a bit of a home-court advantage, but I don’t know that everyone who wants to go to a game is going to be able to get in, and certainly they’re not going to be able to just show up at five minutes of seven and expect to get a good seat.”
Mt. Blue High School and the adjacent Foster Technology Center are undergoing the second year of a three-year, $64.7 million renovation and expansion, a project that this fall forced the school’s football team to relocate its home games off campus to a nearby youth football complex, Kemp Field.
And while repairs to Mt. Blue’s gymnasium originally were scheduled to be completed by Thanksgiving weekend, that wasn’t the case, according to athletic administrator and assistant principal Todd Demmons.
Work on the gymnasium was running behind schedule, Demmons said, even before a mid-September construction accident in which nine of the 14 steel support trusses holding up the gymnasium roof and a connected wall collapsed.
The timetable for completing renovations to the gymnasium now has been pushed back to next spring.
That left Demmons and other school officials scrambling to find gym space for Mt. Blue’s high school varsity and subvarsity basketball teams, the wrestling program and other co-curricular activities.
One suggestion was to play the boys and girls basketball games in neighboring Livermore Falls, where gym space became available after Livermore Falls and Jay high schools merged last summer into Spruce Mountain High School, which has its basketball program based at the former Jay High School gymnasium.
But the Mt. Blue Regional School District board of directors voted to keep the home basketball games within its wide-ranging district that encompasses Chesterville, Farmington, Industry, New Sharon, New Vineyard, Temple, Vienna, Weld and Wilton.
Several Mt. Blue players, including senior standouts Cam Sennick and Eric Berry, were among those instrumental in encouraging the board to keep the home games within their hometown, the Franklin County shiretown.
“They wanted to play here in the district as opposed to Livermore Falls, and I was with them on that,” said Bessey. “They wanted to play here because this is their community.”
Among the issues related to moving the games to Mt. Blue Middle School is the reduced seating at the new location. The Mt. Blue High School gym had a capacity of between 800 and 900. The Mt. Blue Middle School gymnasium has a listed capacity of 400, but with the competing teams sitting in the front row of the bleachers and other game-related personnel to be accommodated, Demmons anticipates a game capacity of just 325.
In light of the reduced seating availability, Demmons said he plans to send 50 tickets to visiting schools for their games at Mt. Blue to accommodate parents and some fans of the opposing teams.
In addition, plans are in the works for the Mt. Blue home games to be televised on a big screen in the middle school cafeteria for any overflow of fans who don’t get tickets.
“We’re just trying to make the best of the situation,” Demmons said.
The high school wrestling team also will host home meets at the junior high, Demmons said, but plans to host four meets this winter have been scaled back to just two home meets.
As for practice schedules, the high school teams are holding workouts at several area gymnasiums including local elementary schools, the middle school, the Farmington Recreation Center and the Academy Hill School in Wilton, which also was considered as a host site for varsity games.
“It’s a huge juggling act,” said Demmons. “But we’re fortunate to have an assortment of gymnasiums to rotate practices into.”
The boys basketball team has held preseason practices during the week at the Academy Hill School — which Bessey said can be a 15- to 20-minute ride from Mt. Blue amid afterschool traffic congestion in the area — and at the middle school on Saturdays.
“The big thing is just to remember to bring everything to practice every day,” said Bessey, “because everything has to be moved from one place to another depending on where we’re practicing.”
The Mt. Blue boys basketball team is scheduled to play its regular-season home opener against Skowhegan on Dec. 9, while the Mt. Blue girls play their first home game against Brewer on Dec. 13.
“You lose out on some of the school spirit aspect of it,” said Bessey of playing and practicing off campus. “You can’t walk past the gymnasium and see the kids practicing, and there won’t be the same kind of pep rallies, so to that extent it might not be the same.
“But I just think we’ve got to be positive going through it, recognize the situation for what is is and put our best face forward.”