The John Bapst boys and girls varsity basketball teams probably would not have to leave the Queen City to play all their games this season if they so desired, given that the Crusaders play most of their home contests at the Bangor Auditorium.
For reasons both nostalgic and strategic, the Auditorium is the place to be.
Of course, this marks the final basketball season at the aging edifice near the intersection of Main and Buck streets, with its state-of-the-art replacement — the Cross Insurance Center — being built right in front of it with a scheduled opening date of Labor Day Weekend 2013.
And that leaves many basketball-minded coaches and players who haven’t had the chance to play at the Auditorium recently looking for one last opportunity to do so, be it at a preseason or holiday tournament, regular-season game or come tournament time.
Russ Bartlett hadn’t brought his Hampden Academy Broncos to the Auditorium since 2005 when the Broncos were the last team to win the Class A boys basketball state championship there.
A year later, geographic considerations prompted the Class A tourney to be moved to the Augusta Civic Center, where it resides today.
None of Bartlett’s current crop of players have played at the Auditorium, so when he joined John Bapst coach and athletic administrator Rick Sinclair for a golfing trip to Aroostook County last summer he convinced Sinclair to host the Broncos for a preseason game at the historic venue.
More recently, Caribou High School adjusted its regular-season basketball schedule in order to play at the Bangor Auditorium last weekend. While Vikings’ boys basketball coach Chris Casavant admitted to some personal nostalgia about the visit, it was more about getting his team ready for what it hopes is a return trip come February vacation week.
“Because I played here in high school and college and I’ve coached here obviously this place means a lot to me, it has historical value to me,” he said. “But for a lot of these players it’s the Bangor Auditorium and they know they play the tournament here, so us playing here was more important because it gives us a chance to see the backdrop, which is important because it’s different than any other gym we play in. That’s why we thought is was important.”
Caribou originally was scheduled to play at John Bapst on Jan. 19, but because of scheduling conflicts with the Auditorium that game would have been played at another location, likely either Husson University or Eastern Maine Community College.
Caribou last played at the Bangor Auditorium in February 2011 when the eighth-ranked Vikings fell to top-seeded Camden Hills of Rockport in an Eastern Maine Class B quarterfinal — Camden Hills went on to win that year’s state title.
Last winter a heating issue at the Auditorium meant the two teams had to play John Bapst’s home game in the series at Memorial Gymnasium on the University of Maine campus in Orono — another historic site, but not one with the high school basketball heritage of the Auditorium.
“We’ve always really felt like it’s important to play here,” Casavant said. “Last year was the first year we’ve ever played Bapst and not played here. Even in years when we’ve kind of looked at our roster and thought we probably weren’t going to get to the tournament, those sophomores and juniors we had might make it next year so we’ve always thought that it was important to do this.”
The schedule switch means Caribou — a team with high hopes for earning a tournament appearance at the Bangor Auditorium in February after returning nearly all of its roster from last year’s 9-9 squad that was ousted in the Class B preliminary round — now will play its first four games on the road.
The Vikings visit Washington Academy of East Machias on Saturday, followed by road games at Fort Kent and Old Town before finally playing their first home game on Dec. 27 against Ellsworth.
“People have looked at our schedule and said, ‘Chris, you play your first four games on the road,’ and I said we do, and they’d say that’s poor scheduling,” Casavant said. “I tell them it was because of me, but it was because I felt it was more important for us to play here than it was to play at home and then play three in a row on the road, so we flipped our games with them.”
That the Vikings were able to get back to the Bangor Auditorium for a regular-season game proved to be an exciting way to start the season — particularly since they left the court with a 65-41 victory.
“I used to come here in second grade with all the guys and watch the games and I always thought I wanted the chance to play here,” said Caribou sophomore guard Dayne Savage. “[Saturday’s] a great opportunity, but hopefully we can get back here again this year.”