Earning a top seed in the Maine high school basketball tournament is a great accomplishment, regardless of a team’s class or gender.

But the Maine Principals’ Association won’t give out Gold Balls to top seeds at the end of the month unless they are the last ones standing.

The Lawrence, Richmond and Rangeley girls teams will try to stay on their feet for the next three weeks, but will also be the most hunted teams as the top seeds in their respective regions.

The tournament, which has expanded from four to five classes this year, kicks off with the preliminary round in classes A, B, C and D on Tuesday and the quarterfinals in the new Class AA on Wednesday.

While the MPA has not officially released the final Heal points because there was still one regular season game remaining to be played on Saturday (more on that later), everything outside of Class C boys is settled.

The top seeds in the boys tournament are settled — Hampden Academy and Greely in Class A, Portland and Thornton Academy in Class AA, Old Town and Lake Region in Class B, George Stevens Academy and Dirigo in Class C, and Easton and Valley of Bingham in Class D.

The top seeds in the girls tournament are Lawrence and York in Class A, Oxford Hills and Gorham in AA, Houlton and Mountain Valley in B, Fort Fairfield and Richmond in C, and Southern Aroostook and Rangeley in D.

Lawrence, the defending Class A champion, is back in the top spot in Class A North (formerly East).

“Its been quite an accomplishment for my seniors and the younger kids on the team,” Lawrence coach John Donato said. “You work hard all season for this opportunity.”

The 18-0 Bulldogs are led by last year’s regional tournament MVP, center Nia Irving, and fellow senior Domi Lewis, who recently joined Irving in the 1,000-career point club. They are the only returning starters from last year’s state championship squad, and Donato makes no bones about how important their leadership will be this year.

“Nia and Dominique have been involved in the program the last four years, so they know what it takes to win at this level,” he said. “Hopefully, they’re ready to put us on their backs and lead us in the right direction.”

Lawrence earned a bye to the quarterfinals next Friday night at the Augusta Civic Center, where they will face the winner of the prelim between No. 8 Brewer and No. 9 Skowhegan.

“When you get to this point in the season you can’t take anybody lightly, no matter if you’ve played them before or how you played them before,” Donato said.

Gardiner would probably like to forget how it played the first time it faced Mt. Blue back in early December. But the Tigers (14-4) earned the No. 3 seed in Class A North (after moving up from Class B this year) and have the Cougars, who beat them 50-31 on Dec. 8 in Farmington, awaiting them in the No. 6 spot.

“Based on how we played earlier in the year, it’s a tough draw, and the second half of Mt. Blue’s season has been great,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “But we knew this past week, with all of the teams in the mix, three through six (seeds) — Hampden, Nokomis, Mt. Blue, it was going to be tough. All of these teams played each other with mixed results during the year, so that whole middle bunch should be a pretty good matchup.”

Mt. Blue (9-9) needed the strong finish to earn the final first round bye and face Gardiner Friday afternoon at the Civic Center.

“Our goal down the stretch was to win enough games to make that happen and we finished off the season winning six of our last eight,” Mt. Blue coach Gavin Kane said. “We have a great deal of respect for coach Gray and his Gardiner team… That (first) game doesn’t mean much now. I do feel that our two teams are very evenly matched.”

Also in A North, Waterville will host Oceanside in a prelim, while Messalonskee and Nokomis earned byes to Augusta as the No. 2 and No. 4 seeds, respectively.

A year ago, Richmond was the No. 4 seed in Class D West. Moved up to Class C by reclassification, the Bobcats finished 16-2 to earn the top seed in C South. They earned a bye to the quarterfinals on Feb. 16 at the Civic Center, where they will meet the winner of the prelim pitting No. 8 Searsport against No. 9 Old Orchard Beach.

Unlike the Class D tournament, where they usually faced familiar East/West Conference foes, the Bobcats now are the top-ranked team in a tournament dominated by unknown Mountain Valley Conference and Western Maine Conference teams. Earning the top seed may have kept them from sneaking into the field under the radar, but that’s fine with them, coach Mike Ladner said.

“We’ve actually embraced (the pressure that comes with being the top seed), to be honest with you,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how it plays out. We’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder to prove we belong with the MVC teams.”

Fourteen teams make the tournament in C South, meaning only the top two teams get a bye. No. 3 Monmouth will host No. 14 Hall-Dale in one prelim while No. 3 Madison and No. 7 Carrabec also have home prelims.

In Class B, Winslow is No. 4 in the North and has a bye to the quarterfinals. In Class B South, No. 9 Oak Hill travels to No. 8 Poland in a prelim.

In Class D South, all eight teams automatically advance to Augusta, led by defending regional champion Rangeley (17-1), which will face No. 8 Greater Portland Christian on Feb. 16. No. 2 Forest Hills and No. 7 Valley of Bingham square off on Feb. 15.

BOYS

As if the two regular season thrillers between Cony and Gardiner weren’t enough, the Class A North rivals will face off again in a prelim on Wednesday night at Gardiner Area High School.

The Rams and Tigers finished the season with identical 7-11 records. Yet despite the fact that Cony beat Gardiner twice during the regular season, the unbalanced schedules of the two teams and the Heal points determined that the game will be played in what is sure to be a packed John A Bragoli Memorial Gym in Gardiner.

The rivalry was renewed in December with the teams’ first regular season meeting since 2007 and the Rams defended their home court with a 54-52 win. A month later, they held on to beat the Tigers, 60-59, in their home gym.

Coaches from both teams expect another tight game Wednesday.

“For the most part, they know how we’re going to play and we know how they’re going to play, which makes it fun,” Cony coach T.J. Maines said. “There aren’t going to be a whole lot of surprises.”

“We certainly competed with them during the season, and we’re excited to play them again, absolutely,” Gardiner coach Jason Cassidy said.

Maines said the Rams will likely be without senior T.J. Cusick, who had a game-high 23 points in the last meeting. Cusick sprained his ankle late in the game against Camden Hills last Tuesday and missed Thursday’s game against Erskine.

“We’re not anticipating having him,” Maines said. “If we do great, but we’re not anticipating it.”

“That certainly changes the dynamic. He’s played well both times against us,” Cassidy said. “But (Maines) has got other guys that can step in and play hard and play well.”

No. 8 Skowhegan and No. 9 Waterville will battle in one A North prelim. The Purple Panthers won the only regular season matchup on Jan. 26, 63-45.

“We’re excited to qualify for starters. It’s not too often for Skowhegan basketball,” Skowhegan coach Tom Nadeau said. “You always want to have someone you are somewhat familiar with. We played (Waterville) once and they got the upper hand. Hopefully, we can make some adjustments and switch things around.”

No. 4 Messalonskee earned a bye to the quarterfinal next Saturday to face No. 5 Oceanside.

In Class B North, No. 7 Winslow and No. 10 Maine Central Institute highlight Wednesday’s prelim matchups The Black Raiders swept the regular-season series, winning the first by 31 points and the second by 10 points.

Maranacook, back in Class B after a successful two-year stint in Class C, is the No. 2 seed in the South. The Black Bears face No. 7 Lisbon in the quarterfinals a week from Saturday at the Portland Expo. Oak Hill, making its first tournament appearance since 2008, is the No. 8 seed and travels to No. 9 Poland for a prelim.

Class C is awaiting the outcome of a regular season finale between Machias and Islesboro, which had to be postponed a couple of times due to weather and is scheduled for Saturday morning. Richmond’s fate lies in that matchup. If Machias wins, the Bobcats will host Searsport in a Wednesday prelim. If Islesboro wins (or if the game is canceled), Searsport will catapult over the Bobcats and host the prelim game. Regardless of site, that game will be played at 6 p.m.

Elsewhere in Class C, Monmouth and Hall-Dale will be on the road for prelims, while Winthrop and Madison are the second and third seeds, respectively, and advance to the quarterfinals on Feb. 15.

Valley rolled through the East-West Conference to a 17-0 record and the top spot in Class D South. The Cavaliers will face the winner of the prelim between No. 8 Rangeley and No. 9 Forest Hills on Feb. 13 at 1 p.m.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

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Twitter: @RAWmaterial33