They carry the weight of perfection into the biggest of stages. And while expectations tick up when there’s a zero in the loss columns along with a 1 seed by the names, the Winthrop boys and Messalonskee and Richmond girls basketball teams aren’t ready to buy into mounting pressure.
If anything, they’re feeding off it. After all, this is what they spent those 18-0 campaigns getting ready for.
“That’s one of the things we’ve dealt with all year, and we’re not just used to it, we’re kind of embracing it,” Winthrop coach Todd MacArthur said. “We’re embracing those expectations, we’re embracing getting everybody’s best shot because it means we’re doing things right.”
With the boys and girls basketball tournaments about to start — and storylines just as bountiful this year with title hopefuls ranging from 784-student Messalonskee to a school of 47 in Rangeley — there may not be a more compelling narrative than the one concerning the three Central Maine unbeatens, who have handled each challenger they’ve encountered and now face the task of turning their unblemished regular seasons into Gold Balls.
“As far as being undefeated, to be honest with you, we don’t really talk about it,” Richmond coach Mike Ladner said. “We’ve talked about it twice, and I think it’s been a couple of weeks since we talked about it. It doesn’t really come up.”
“The pressure’s there, mostly I think from knowing that, with the undefeated season, it’s not going to hurt anybody’s feelings to see us get knocked out,” Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby said. “Really, a loss in any round would probably be a disappointment, but not because of where we are, but what our goal is.”
Confident and prepared to defend their top seeds and undefeated records as they are, all three teams respect the possibility of that defense going awry once the games begin.
“I’m lucky that I’ve got Sophie (Holmes), who is just continually preaching that the regular season doesn’t carry over. Everybody’s 0-0 going in,” Derosby said. “Everybody’s looking for that first win. Luckily, a lot of my younger players are … taking that mantra.”
It’s not hollow talk. For the Ramblers, whose depth and versatility stand out in Class C, the regular season has often been — or at least looked — easy. Same goes for the Eagles, who operate a crisp, potent offense that buries opponents at top form. And the pressing, tempo-pushing Bobcats.
But weird things happen in February. These teams, no strangers to long tournament runs, have seen it for themselves.
“(Holmes) knows how clearly it can turn the other way,” said Derosby, whose team beat No. 2 Lawrence as a seventh seed in 2014. “She’s got that perspective. This can end really quick.”
Ditto the Richmond girls, who were toppled as the top seed last year, and the Winthrop boys, who lost as a fourth seed to No. 8 Maranacook in 2015, then reached the South final last year as a second seed before succumbing to No. 4 Waynflete.
“Last year we were kind of the hunters, and this year we’re being the hunted,” MacArthur said. “We’re excited for the tournament. Like I told the kids the other day, this is why I coach, this is why you play. This is what it’s all about.”
Other storylines to watch:
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DEFENDING CHAMPS: The Rangeley girls and Valley boys basketball teams are back to try to defend their Class D crowns. On the boys side, it’s been an up-and-down season for the Cavaliers, who went 21-0 last year but slipped to 11-7 this winter. Led by high-scoring Austin Cates, however, Valley could be a tough out.
Rangeley is in good position as it eyes a repeat, sitting as the top seed in D South. The Lakers (15-3), who eye their third straight trip to the state final, lost to only one D school but face a potential roadblock in No. 2 Vinalhaven, which handed them that one loss and outscored them 97-80 in two games.
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HIGH SEEDS: Take the three unbeatens out of the picture and there are still some teams with the records and seedings to suggest they’ll be playing a while. The Skowhegan girls, a 6-12 team last year, have leaned on defense and rebounding to claim the second seed at 14-4 in Class A North, while a balanced scoring cast has lifted Nokomis (14-4) to the third slot.
The Richmond boys, at 17-1, were the last of the Class C South teams (with the exception of Winthrop) to lose, and the Bobcats are the second seed. They’ve played a predominantly Class D schedule, however, rather than the MVC-heavy slate with which most C South contenders deal.
Monmouth (15-3), C South’s third seed on the girls side, just missed a top-two spot and the automatic bye that comes with it. But with the only victory against top-seeded Boothbay this year, the Mustangs won’t be lacking confidence.
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DON’T SLEEP ON THEM: A slew of teams could be tough outs despite more modest seedings. Forest Hills (12-6, No. 4 in Class D) won the boys title in 2015, and got a scoring spark this season from eighth-grader Parker Desjardins.
The winner of the Gardiner (No. 4, 10-8) and Messalonskee (No. 5, 13-5) boys game could do damage in the sectional semis and beyond. Gardiner scored impressive wins over No. 2 Hampden and AA fifth seed Oxford Hills, while Messalonskee has won six straight and eight of its last nine games against Class A competition.
The MCI girls (No. 9, 11-7) are no pushover, having defeated fifth seed Winslow and battled A North’s Skowhegan this season. The Huskies will face a long trip to Mount Desert Island to start their Class B quest.
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GAMES TO WATCH: After battling each other to the final second in the last game of the regular season, the Erskine (No. 10, 8-10) and Cony boys (No. 7, 9-9) will battle again in the A North preliminary round Wednesday. Cony beat Erskine, 42-40, in the finale, and the teams split during the season.
No. 8 Skowhegan (9-9) and No. 9 Brewer (7-11) face off in the A North boys prelims after splitting during the regular season.
No. 11 MCI visits No. 6 Winslow in the B North boys prelims. The teams split during the season, with MCI scoring a surprising 51-49 victory in the second game.
The Gardiner girls (No. 8, 11-7) host Brewer (No. 9, 5-13) in the A North prelims, with the winner facing Messalonskee in the quarters. The teams split during the season, but the Witches outscored the Tigers 104-100.
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FOLLOW ALONG: From the quarterfinals on, tournament action will be available even to those who can’t make it to the Augusta Civic Center or Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) Network will stream the regional quarterfinal games, while the Northeast Sports Network will stream the regional semis and finals.
The state championship games for boys and girls will be televised on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
Drew Bonifant — 621-5638