The road to the American Legion baseball Zone 1 championship could be as unpredictable as ever at the Winkin Baseball Complex on the campus of Husson University in Bangor beginning Thursday.
With three teams sharing the best record among the six zone tournament qualifiers, a fourth team one game behind and all six participants separated by just five games, the 2009 regular season produced the tightest Zone 1 race in recent memory.
And now comes a playoff format new to the zone tournament, beginning with four teams battling in a single- elimination opening-day format for the chance to advance to three days of double-elimination play that will send the zone champion and runner-up to the state tournament at Augusta from July 29 to Aug. 2.
The top two seeds now earn first-round byes, part of the rationale for the new format to reward those teams for their regular-season performance.
But that didn’t work out exactly according to plan this summer, as three teams — defending zone champion Hampden, Brewer and Bangor — all tied for first place in the final regular-season standings with 15-5 records.
That marked the first time since 2004 that there was a tie for first place, and with just two teams involved there was a one-game playoff for the top seed, with Bangor defeating Brewer in that contest.
But with three teams tied for the lead this summer, zone officials turned to the third tiebreaker after a single-game playoff and head-to-head competition, the Mealey point system, to determine the order of finish.
Brewer earned the top seed by garnering the most points based essentially on its 3-1 record against Bangor and Hampden, while Hampden earned the No. 2 seed after going 2-2 against Brewer and Bangor.
Bangor, the third seed, lost twice to Brewer and split with Hampden during the regular season.
That means Brewer and Hampden draw opening-round byes, thus avoiding the possibility for the one-and-done upset loss inherent in single-elimination play being able to save their pitching depth for the rest of the tournament.
Third-seeded Bangor, which went 4-0 over the final weekend of the regular season to earn its share of first place, will play No. 6 Motor City of Bangor (10-10) in the second of Thursday’s play-in games at 7 p.m.
Motor City used a doubleheader sweep over No. 5 Trenton on Saturday to earn its way into postseason play, finishing two games ahead of seventh-place Presque Isle (8-12).
The Bangor-Motor City game will be preceded at 4 p.m. by a play-in game between No. 4 Steamboat Petroleum of Waldo County (14-6) and Trenton (11-9).
The teams will be reseeded after Thursday’s play, with Hampden to play the highest-seeded play-in winner at 4 p.m. Friday followed by Brewer against the lowest-seeded play-in winner at 7 p.m.
The tournament continues with a tripleheader Saturday before the championship round Sunday.
And as much as 11 teams battled through a 20-game regular-season schedule to earn the highest postseason seeding possible, that quest hasn’t necessarily translated into zone tournament success for the last two years.
Last year No. 5 Hampden and No. 4 Steamboat Petroleum qualified for the state tournament, while No. 4 Brewer and No. 2 Bangor were the zone’s representatives in 2007.
The last time the top two seeds qualified for the states was in 2006 when Brewer was the zone champion and Bangor the runner-up, but only four times in the last 11 years have the top two seeds both advanced.
While two Zone 1 teams are guaranteed entry to this year’s state tournament, that won’t be the case for the next four years.
Under the new five-zone, eight-team state tournament format that takes effect this year, only the five zone champions and a single runner-up selected from one of the zones on a rotating basis each year is guaranteed a trip to the states.
The other four zone runners-up will trek to Augusta this Saturday for a pair of play-in games that will fill out the state tournament field.
Next year, for instance, the Zone 2 runner-up will advance directly to the states, while the Zone 1 runnerup will have to survive a play-in game to make the eight-team field.