NO. 1 HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL ADOPTS 5-CLASS SYSTEM

Portland schools in the North? Greenville and Forest Hills of Jackman in the South? A Class AA?

Even lifelong Mainers might find a study of the high school basketball Heal point standings confusing eight months after administrators made sweeping changes to the sport’s landscape.

Hoping to address competitive balance issues brought on by the state’s shifting population, the Maine Principals’ Association approved the addition of a fifth class by a 67-29 vote of member schools in late April. Before that, Maine had held championships in four enrollment classes in boys basketball since the 1950s and girls basketball since 1975.

The addition of another class brought about other monumental changes, starting with the two regions who sent representatives to compete for the Gold Ball — traditionally known as East and West — being renamed North and South.

The schools with the highest enrollments (825 students and over) were moved to a 16-team Class AA. Enrollment ranges for the four remaining classes — A, B, C and D — were narrowed to, in theory, make tournament fields more balanced.

While the changes were in large part made to benefit the state’s smallest schools, its affects were far-reaching and crossed over into the regular season. Schools and conferences scrambled to schedule different opponents based on classification and/or geographic proximity. That led to conferences such as the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, Western Maine Conference and Southwestern Maine Activities Association to reach agreements that allowed for inter-conference games during the regular season (the Mountain Valley Conference, which consists of Class B and C schools from central and western Maine, decided to remain a closed conference). To encourage more inter-class competition, the MPA later reduced the Heal point differential between classes from five points to two.

Some old rivalries — such as Cony-Gardiner and Lawrence-Winslow — returned to the hardwood, while others went by the wayside. Potential new rivalries were born.

“That’s good for central Maine basketball,” said Lawrence boys coach Jason Pellerin. “That’s what we grew up with, these rivalries.”

When tournament time rolls around, fans who typically enjoy the February feast of high school hoops will have two more tournaments and two more championship games on the menu. The Augusta Civic Center, Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center, the Portland Expo and Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena will be busier than ever during vacation week. Whether the games are more competitive remains to be seen. But there’s no denying one of Maine’s great winter traditions will be changed forever.

NO. 2 LAWRENCE GIRLS BASKETBALL WINS CLASS A CHAMPIONSHIP

Trailing Thornton Academy by six points at halftime of the Class A state championship game, the Lawrence High School girls basketball team played arguably their best half of the season for the 50-43 win and the team’s first state title since 1994.

“We stuck to our game plan, and we didn’t panic,” Lawrence coach John Donato said after the game.

Nia Irving, who later in the year committed to play her college basketball at Boston University, led the Bulldogs with 27 points in the championship game, while Domi Lewis scored nine of her 12 points in the fourth quarter.

In the days following the title, the Bulldogs and the Gold Ball toured the school district’s elementary schools, beginning with a stop in Albion.

“It’s so nice we could bring this to the community,” senior Paige Belanger said.

NO. 3 WINSLOW FOOTBALL WINS 2ND STRAIGHT STATE TITLE

In 2015, no high school football team in Maine was as dominant in its class as Winslow High School.

The Black Raiders capped a second consecutive undefeated season with a 24-10 win over Yarmouth to earn the Class C state title once again. Winslow’s undefeated streak now sits at 22 games, the longest current win streak in the state.

Winslow scored 491 points while allowing just 64. The Black Raiders posted seven shutouts in 11 games. Winslow forced four Yarmouth turnovers in the second half of the state championship game, including a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior defensive back Trenton Bouchard.

Senior guard Alec Clark was selected as a semifinalist for the Gaziano Trophy, awarded each year to the top senior offensive and defensive linemen in the state.

NO. 4 SKOWHEGAN FIELD HOCKEY WINS CLASS A TITLE

Wasn’t this supposed to be the rare down year for the Skowhegan Area High School field hockey team?

Nope. Instead, the Indians continued their dominance of Maine high school field hockey, beating Thornton Academy 3-1 for their 13th title in the last 15 years.

With a roster full of inexperienced underclassmen, Skowhegan was expected to yield the Northern Maine Class A crown to a veteran Messalonskee team this season. Messalonskee beat Skowhegan twice in the regular season to cement its status as the regional favorite. In the regional final at Thomas College, however, Skowhegan pulled off a 2-1 overtime win over the Eagles, winning when freshman Lizzy York scored with 14.4 seconds left in the extra period.

Senior goalkeeper Leah Kruse was outstanding all season, but may have played her best in the postseason. Kruse made 11 saves in the regional final win over Messalonskee.

NO. 5 THE DEATHS OF LOCAL SPORTS PIONEERS DICK MCGEE AND HAROLD “TANK” VIOLETTE

Central Maine lost two of the most influential men in its sports history in 2015 with the deaths of Dick McGee and Harold Violette. McGee died in February at age 84, while Violette died in August at age 77.

A longtime football coach and athletic director at Colby College, McGee was a founder of Fairfield’s youth sports program, the Police Athletic League. McGee was involved with the group from its beginning in 1959 until 2013, when his health no longer permitted his participation. McGee oversaw the organization as it grew to include more and more sports and girls programs. PAL now serves more than 1,400 children.

“Dick could convince anybody about anything because he was very sincere and he was truthful and he did it all for the kids,” longtime Fairfield businessman Harold Joseph said.

Violette coached football, ice hockey and wrestling at Winslow High School.

Violette coached football at Winslow from 1969 to 1984, winning 113 games and state championships in 1973, 1976 and 1982. He also won state titles coaching at Belfast in 1967 and 1968 before returning to Winslow.

Violette help found Winslow’s ice hockey team and coached the Black Raiders to six state title.

“Coach Violette, he was my mentor. He was a father figure to not only myself, but to anyone who played for him,” said Wes Littlefield, who played football for Violette at Winslow and is now an assistant coach with the team.

Both McGee and Violette are in the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.

NO. 6 UNIFIED BASKETBALL DEBUTS IN MAINE

After nearly two years of planning, unified basketball made its debut in Maine on Jan. 24, 2015 when Cony hosted Oceanside.

The unified sport — which had been available in New England states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island for several years — partners special education students (athletes) with regular education students (partners) and uses rules slightly different than the traditional version of the sport.

It was clear from the moment the players hit the court on that first night in Augusta that the sport was bound to be a success.

“It’s a great thing that Special Olympics has put together and the MPA came on board,” Cony athletic director and unified basketball coach Paul Vachon said after the game. “I think it’s going to be something that goes on for a long time.”

Those sentiments were not exclusive to Cony, though. Messalonskee, Waterville, Winthrop and Oak Hill were among the local schools that also participated in the sport’s first season.

“We’ve just had a very positive time,” Messalonskee athletic director and unified basketball coach Tommy Hill said after a playoff game against Winthrop. “I think both our athletes and our partners have really come together and it’s been a positive experience for everyone.

“It’s just seeing the faces of the kids when they score the first time and just how excited they are, whether it’s a player on your team or the opposition. For some of these kids when they score it’s the highlight of their day. It’s just priceless.”

The first season ended in fittingly thrilling fashion, as Hampden beat Lisbon in the first-ever championship game, 32-30, with a bucket at the buzzer in overtime at Lewiston High School.

NO. 7 MESSALONSKEE SOFTBALL WINS STATE TITLE IN DRAMATIC FASHION

Memories of Messalonskee’s first state softball title in 10 years will start with the sound of the ball leaving Kristy Prelgovisk’s bat in the first inning of the championship game against Scarborough.

“I heard the noise, and I knew,” Prelgovisk said. “I’ve hit a couple of those before, and you hear that same noise and you know it’s going to go over.”

The solo home run at Cony Family Field was the Eagles’ only hit of the game. It was also the game’s only run, as Kirsten Pelletier’s mastery in the circle (two hits, three walks, 12 strikeouts) meant nothing but zeros in the run column for the Red Storm, who had won the state title in every odd-numbered year since 2007.

“You can load the bases with no outs and she’ll find a way to get three outs for us,” Messalonskee coach Leo Bouchard said of Pelletier. “She becomes more determined, more focused and more aggressive on the mound when there’s a lot of pressure.”

With Pelletier, Prelgovisk and MollyAn Killingbeck leading the way, Messalonskee had high hopes entering the 2015 season — even though Prelgovisk and Killingbeck were the only seniors.

But the Eagles played with poise beyond their years and earned the top seed in Eastern A with a 13-3 mark. A shutout over Mt. Ararat and one-run wins over Edward Little and Bangor in the regional tournament stoked their confidence to pull off the upset over the previously unbeaten Red Storm, who averaged 10.5 runs per game.

NO. 8 MESSALONSKEE HOCKEY WINS BACK-TO-BACK STATE TITLES

New coach, no problem.

Joe Hague, a Messalonskee graduate in his own right, took over as head coach for Mike Latendresse and the Eagles did not miss a beat. Armed with a talented roster led by the high-scoring first line of Jake Dexter, Jared Cunningham and Brandon Nale, the Eagle’s only loss of the season came in an early regular season contest against Class A Bangor.

More often than not, the Eagles had their way with the opposition when they stepped on the ice, yet that could not have been further from the case in the Class B championship against Gorham. Messalonskee found itself in unfamiliar territory in that game and faced a 2-1 deficit heading into the final period.

It was then, though, that the Eagles’ top line was at its best. Dexter, Cunningham and Nale combined to score six goals in the final period and seal Messalonskee’s second consecutive state championship with a resounding 7-2 victory.

“It means a lot. Coming off a 21-0 run (last season) and coming out here and repeating is a great feeling,” Cunningham said after the game. “I was getting a little frustrated but you have to work through some problems and just keep going, keep grinding.

“…It’s an amazing feeling and a great group of guys. We came together as a family, and we just wanted to come out here and we wanted to prove ourselves. Everyone said we were losing a lot and we wouldn’t be as good, but we just came out here and proved everyone wrong.”

NO. 9 WATERVILLE GIRLS TRACK AND FIELD WINS INDOOR, OUTDOOR STATE TITLES

The Waterville Senior High School girls track and field team continued to be one of the most dominant programs in the state, winning the indoor state title in February and the outdoor championship in June.

The indoor title was the fifth consecutive for the Purple Panthers, who scored 74.83 points to earn the championship. Senior Sarah Shoulta won championships in the pole vault and 55 hurdles, while Kellie Bolduc won the triple jump for the Panthers.

Waterville’s outdoor title was its ninth straight championship. The Panthers scored 118.25 to comfortably beat second place York’s 87 points.

Shoulta won the 100 and 300 hurdles, while Bolduc won the triple jump. Lauren Brown won the 3,200 for the Panthers and Alison Linscott was champion in the high jump.

NO. 10 MESSALONSKEE GIRLS LACROSSE WINS EASTERN A TITLE

Girls lacrosse has crowned regional champions every year since 1998, but never had that title traveled further north of Topsham — until this past spring.

When Messalonskee defeated Portland 11-8 at Thomas College in Waterville it became the northern most regional champion in the history of girls lacrosse in Maine.

Almost exclusively, regional and state champions in the sport have come from Portland or the surrounding area. The Brunswick boys and girls have broken through a few times, while the Mt. Ararat girls (2010) and Lewiston boys (2006) have won regional titles. Yet for the most part, school’s like Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, Cheverus, Waynflete, Yarmouth and North Yarmouth Academy have been dominant.

In 2015 the Eagles showed lacrosse can thrive central Maine, though, and they did so in honorable fashion. Among the many ways they remembered their teammate, Cassidy Charette, who died in October of 2014, was by wearing a patch on their jerseys with her initials woven into an infinity symbol.

Though the Eagles ultimately fell short to Marshwood, 13-5, in the Class A championship, they continue to “play like it’s your last,” as coach Ashley Pullen often reminded her team and honored their fallen teammate’s legacy.

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