In World Cup soccer, they have a name for a bracket like the one facing Class A North girls basketball teams in the regional quarterfinals. They call it the “Group of Death,” and it’s a moniker reserved for the toughest of all the brackets in the tournament.

On paper, No. 3 Messalonskee (12-6) meets No. 6 Medomak Valley (11-7) and No. 2 Skowhegan (14-4) plays No. 7 Nokomis (9-9) in Friday’s afternoon session at the Augusta Civic Center, while No. 1 Hampden (16-2) battles No. 8 Gardiner (9-9) and No. 4 Lawrence (11-7) tips off against No. 5 Brewer (11-7) at night. But, as they say, you can throw the seedings out the window.

Welcome to Maine high school basketball’s own Group of Death.

“I believe all of the coaches think the same way. We really believe this is one of those years that it could be anyone one through eight (winning the regional championship),” Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a No. 4 against a No. 7 in the finals.”

If that happens, LeBlanc’s Indians would have to be upset in the first round by Nokomis. It’s not just a coach’s natural inclination toward paranoia fueling the belief that this could be anybody’s tournament.

The numbers bear it out.

Top-seeded Hampden lost twice this season — once to Skowhegan and once to Lawrence — despite opening the season with a nearly 40-point win over defending state champion Messalonskee. Though the Indians split with the Broncos, they lost twice to Messalonskee and once to Class B’s Maine Central Institute. Lawrence beat Messalonskee, lost twice to Skowhegan and lost by 25 points to Brewer in the second half of the season. Messalonskee lost twice to the region’s top seed, beat No. 2 Skowhegan twice but split with No. 4 Lawrence.

The numbers go on. And on and on and on.

“It’s weird, because everyone beat up on everyone at different points in the season,” Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby said. “It will probably come down to matchups. I think it’s going to come down to whose defense was able to control which offense and vice versa.”

With all of the talk about parity and unpredictability in the region, there’s still the daunting task of being the No. 8 seed staring down a matchup against No. 1 in the opening round. That honor falls on Friday to Gardiner.

“I don’t know that there’s eight different teams that can win this tournament, but every team in it is good enough to win a game here,” Gray said. “Maybe it’s different when you’re the eight going into the (game against the top seed), but the attitude we’re taking is that anything can happen.”

Gray should know. His Tigers, after all, pulled off just such a stunning upset in 2015. In the Class B North tournament that season, Gardiner won a prelim game as the No. 9 seed and went on to beat No. 1 Mount Desert Island by 12 in the quarterfinals.

The Tigers’ run extended all the way to the regional final that winter.

“A couple of years ago, we came out of the bottom half of the bracket,” said Gray, whose team lost only three games by more than 10 points against Class A teams this season. “There’s just a crazy amount of parity in this league on any given night.”

Parity. The tournament atmosphere. The Civic Center court itself. They add up to a number of intangibles that can help determine tournament outcomes — but the coaches agree on something else, too.

Defense still wins championships.

“Absolutely,” Derosby said. “Two things you can control are defense and mindset. Your shots, sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t. You can’t control what the other team does or the officiating or any of those things. But you can control how you play defense and your mindset.

“It’s not always pretty. But when it comes down to it, in stressful situations can you get stops? That’s the kind of thing you can control.”

LeBlanc says you’ve got to bring a certain attitude to the tournament with you, even more so this year.

“It’s ‘shoot and survive,'” said LeBlanc, whose team is making its third straight tournament appearance. “Shoot the ball well and survive for the next game. You only have to play well for two weeks now. You want to play the game we’re capable of playing — which doesn’t always happen — but if we play the game we’re capable of, we can stick around.”

The same, it seems, is true for the other seven teams in the region. The coaches all agree on that point, as well as one other.

“It’s stressful,” Derosby said. “But it’s a great time of year.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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