The Eastern Maine Class C boys basketball tournament may be the most grueling of them all, with the champion required to win three games in five days — including the semifinal and final on back-to-back days.
But that battle of attrition has left the regional champion in good stead for the state final that follows a week later in recent years. The Eastern C tournament has produced seven of the last nine gold-ball winners in the division, including Lee Academy last year.
Lee is back as the No. 1 seed in Eastern C for the second straight season, with coach Randy Harris’ club entering tournament play with a 16-2 record thanks to a balanced attack led by senior guard D.J. Johnson and 6-4 senior forward Haris Karagic.
But Lee is one of four teams at the top of the final Heal points with two losses apiece, joined by Sumner of East Sullivan, Calais and Penquis of Milo.
Sumner (16-2) advanced from the No. 6 seed to the regional final a year ago, and coach Walter Crabtree’s club will bring the bulk of that roster back to the Bangor Auditorium next week, including senior point guard Gabe O’Brien and junior forward Tylor Martin.
Calais may be the mystery team in the field, having played none of the other 10 teams that qualified for at least the preliminary round. Coach Ed Leeman’s club (14-2) is riding a seven-game winning streak, which includes avenging their only losses at Class B playoff qualifier Washington Academy of East Machias and Class D top seed Jonesport-Beals.
Another team entering the tournament on a seven-game winning streak is fourth-seeded Penquis, which ended its regular-season schedule with a 58-54 victory at Lee Academy. Coach Tony Hamlin’s defensive-minded Patriots (16-2) have a prolific scorer in forward Isaiah Bess, who teams with guard Trevor Lyford to give the Patriots one of the top sophomore tandems in the region.
Two of the more intriguing teams in the field may be fifth-ranked Fort Kent and No. 6 Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln.
Fort Kent (13-5) has height in 6-foot-9 senior Thomas Enerva and a top guard in classmate Curtis Bouchard, and the Warriors split during the regular season with two of the top teams in Class D, defending state champion Central Aroostook of Mars Hill and Washburn.
Mattanawcook (13-5) features one of the region’s top scorers in senior guard Chase Vicaire, and coach Ryan Libby’s Lynx split during the regular season with three of the top four teams in the division — Lee, Sumner and Penquis.
Another dangerous team could be seventh-seeded Houlton, which brings a deceiving 8-10 record into postseason play. Coach Rob Moran’s youthful Shiretowners, led by freshman Kyle Bouchard, is just 2-3 in its last five games but consider the results — an overtime loss at Lee, an eight-point victory over Mattanawcook Academy, a four-point loss at Class B No. 5 seed Presque Isle, a six-point win over Class D fifth seed Hodgdon and a four-point loss at Class B playoff qualifier Caribou.
Orono and Bucksport each went 9-9 during the regular season, including a split with each other as they headed toward their preliminary-round matchup Wednesday evening.
For Orono it has already been a bounce-back year under first-year coach Jason Coleman, as the Red Riots won just twice a year ago. Bucksport, in its first year in Class C after being reclassified by enrollment from Class B, has been a stingy defensive team under coach Jason Tripp, allowing just 45.3 points per game.
George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill (8-10) and Stearns of Millinocket (7-11) round out the field of qualifiers for preliminary-round play. GSA used a season-ending 49-40 victory over Orono to earn its way to the postseason, while Stearns is back in the field despite graduating 11 of its 12 players from last year’s tourney team.