Bangor’s Andrew Szwez takes the ball past Madden White of Nokomis during Thursday's game action. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Opening night for the Bangor boys basketball team was like no other in school history.

There were virtually no cars in the parking lot, and the doors to Red Barry Gymnasium led the few people allowed inside to empty bleachers where typically up to a thousand fans might show up to cheer on the home team.

But in this age of COVID-19, just the opportunity to face another team in competition was a victory of sorts for Bangor and visiting Nokomis Regional High School of Newport on Thursday night.

“Every day that we see the numbers come out or the governor has a press conference, we’re worried,” Bangor coach Brad Libby said after the Rams’ 66-44 victory. “We can’t take anything for granted. We have to feel very fortunate every day that we can step on the court.”

With regular-season schedules regionalized this winter to limit travel, Class AA Bangor and Class A Nokomis — located only 30 miles apart — are naturals to square off. They will play again next week at Newport.

That’s color coding permitting.

Bangor’s head coach Brad Libby coaches his players during game action. Bangor High hosted Nokomis in the first game of the COVID-19 season at an empty Red Barry Gym Thursday night. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor is the only Class AA program statewide currently allowed to practice and play games under Maine Principals’ Association guidance. It is based on the state Department of Education’s health advisory system for determining how schools should conduct classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

All of the other large-school basketball teams in the state are located in the four southernmost counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York — which are coded yellow. Yellow or red means a suspension of interscholastic sports.

“I honestly feel bad for those programs and my friends as ADs in the other part of the state to not be able to have their kids playing,” longtime Bangor athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine said. “We know how that feels because this past summer we were not allowed to be with our players except through Zoom meetings, so when we came back in the fall for that first day of practice, it was the first time we had been with them since March 15.”

Vanidestine and his staff adapted Bangor’s gym before Thursday’s varsity and JV contests, spacing out the player benches into three rows of seating for each team and sanitizing those areas between games.

He also organized separate locations for the varsity teams to remain during the JV game, with Bangor’s squad in Peakes Auditorium and Nokomis in the high school cafeteria. That ensured the state-mandated 50-person limit for an indoor gathering wasn’t exceeded.

Left to right: Madden White of Nokomis tries to block Bangor’s Andrew Szwez as he goes up for a shot in Thursdays game; Carter Rice of Nokomis and Bangor’s Colton Emerson go up for a rebound. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The gym was starkly quiet between games, and even during the varsity contest it was more the sounds of silence save for squeaking sneakers, the referees’ whistles and the vocal support of the reserve players.

“There was a little bit of a scrimmage element to it,” said Bangor senior Andrew Szwez, who scored a game-high 26 points. “But it just made it more important that we brought our own energy.”

Energy was the word of the night as the players sought success without the accompanying din typical at a midwinter high school game in a basketball state like Maine.

“The sound in every gymnasium in the state is a little different so it depends on the gym,” Nokomis’ Keith Lilly said. “This was a big gym so it was a struggle. There was no energy from fans so we had to draw energy from our own team and our own bench.”

The coaches also may have gone deeper into their benches than normal, in part to support players still getting used to wearing face masks during competition.

“We have to manage the rotations a little more right now because of the fatigue factor,” Libby said. “You’ll see them pulling their masks away, trying to get some air. It’s a big thing to try to get that deep breath in but they’re getting more used to it as they play more.”

Bangor raced out to a 24-4 first-quarter lead, but Nokomis rallied within 49-34 by the end of the third period. Szwez then helped the Rams pull away again over the game’s final eight minutes.

Bangor High boys host Nokomis in the first game of the COVID-19 season at an empty Red Barry Gym Thursday night. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“It just took us too long to get used to being guarded like that,” Nokomis coach Ryan Martin said. “Bangor’s quick and athletic and puts a lot of pressure on you, but I loved the way we fought. We didn’t go away, we just couldn’t put enough scores and stops together to get fully back in it.”

Szwez scored 19 points in the second half to help Bangor maintain its lead, and the Rams also got a big debut from freshman forward Landon Clark, who had 14 points and a handful of assists.

Jacob Noyes paced Nokomis with 13 points, while Lilly scored 11 and Grady Hartsgrove had 10.

Both teams will spend early Friday watching a different scoreboard, as the bi-weekly state color-coding update is scheduled for approximately noon.

“The reality is this might be the only [game],” Martin said. “We’ll see [Friday], but to see them out there playing like they were tonight, you can tell that the kids need it.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...