When Mount View of Thorndike and Old Town take the opening tipoff shortly after 5 p.m. on Friday, what could be one of the more unpredictable Eastern Maine boys basketball tournaments in recent history will be under way.
Eight days and 28 games later, new regional champions will be crowned. The “A” winner will be determined on Feb. 19 at the Augusta Civic Center, and the survivors from “B,” “C” and “D” will claim their trophies a day later at the Bangor Auditorium.
And there’s reason to believe that while some teams have earned the status of favorite through their regular-season play, the path to tournament glory will be filled with challenges.
For there are no undefeated teams in this year’s Eastern Maine tournament, planting the seeds of doubt in even the most self-confident entries.
Instead of dominant individual programs, the final Heal point ratings suggest upper echelons in each class.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Class D, where eight different qualifiers have at least 13 victories. In Classes A, B and C, five teams have at least 14 wins.
The Eastern A boys tournament, which begins late Saturday afternoon in Augusta, is one of the more eagerly anticipated playdowns in recent years. That’s particularly true in Greater Bangor where top- ranked Brewer, No. 3 Bangor and No. 4 Hampden Academy are all ranked among the top four for the first time.
Those teams have produced some intense regular-season clashes, as well as such individual standouts as in KVAC North player of the year Jacob Moore and point guard Graham Safford of Hampden, swingman Dom Drake and point guard Ray Bessette of Brewer, and center Clark Noonan and forward Zach Blodgett of Bangor.
Yet other teams, particularly defending regional champion Edward Little of Auburn and fifth-seeded Brunswick, would like nothing better than spoil the northern party.
Camden Hills of Rockport raced virtually unchallenged to an undefeated season and the Class B state championship last winter.
The Windjammers are back on top of the Eastern B standings this year with a 16-2 record sparked by KVAC Class B player of the year Tyler McFarland — the only returning starter — and fellow first-team choice Keegan Pieri.
Camden Hills is only a few seconds removed from perfection again, with a game-winning shot in a two-point loss at Mount View of Thorndike coming just after the buzzer, and a shot with 3.5 seconds left by Luke Morrill giving Rockland a dramatic 67-66 win over the Windjammers’ in the regular- season finale.
Until they are beaten in postseason play, coach Jeff Hart’s club remains the favorite. However, several teams, including KVAC rivals Mount View, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro and even Rockland — which earned the final playoff berth with its win over Camden Hills and advanced to the quarters by ousting No. 7 Winslow on Wednesday — have reason for optimism.
The Big East Conference, seeking its first regional title in nine years, has its own cast of challengers led by No. 2 Ellsworth and No. 4 Presque Isle.
Interestingly, all four quarterfinals match the KVAC against Big East rivals.
Defending Class C state champion Calais has won 14 consecutive postseason games at the Bangor Auditorium while winning the last four Eastern Maine titles.
Winning a fifth straight regional crown may represent the Blue Devils’ biggest challenge of the run, particularly given a recent 37-point loss at Washington Academy of East Machias.
The Raiders finished 17-1 and top-ranked in Eastern C for the second straight year, and led by seniors Ben Teer, Noah Von Rotz and Bryce Colbeth, WA is highly motivated after being ousted by Stearns of Millinocket in the 2009 semifinals.
A semifinal rematch could be in the offing next Friday night, if WA can defeat a Penobscot Valley of Howland team making its first Bangor appearance since 1987 and No. 4 Stearns can overcome No. 5 Foxcroft Academy, a Class B tourney entry last year that split with the Minutemen during the regular season.
No. 3 Lee Academy, winner of five of its last six games and the only team to defeat Class D No. 1 Schenck of East Millinocket, is another threat to go deep in the Class C tourney that begins Tuesday.
In Class D, Schenck earned the top seed after dropping from Class C but going 17-1 against a schedule still featuring 14 games against Class C foes.
Looming just behind the Wolverines is Central Aroostook of Mars Hill. Coach Tim Brewer’s Panthers have won three of the last five state titles and reached the Eastern D final the other two years.
No. 3 Fort Fairfield, ousted in last year’s quarterfinals after being the No. 1 seed, is back and motivated, while No. 4 Jonesport-Beals and No. 5 Washburn boast youthful squads that bode well for both the present and future.
Southern Aroostook is led by one of the region’s top scorers in senior guard Dakota Sleeper, while point guard David Medeiros and center Tyler Mitchell lead a Shead of Eastport team that reached last year’s semifinals.
Greater Houlton Christian Academy, which draws Schenck in the quarters, will make its first-ever Bangor appearance after defeating Deer Isle-Stonington in the prelims.