When Travis Magnusson became the boys basketball coach at Mt. Blue High School last spring, he knew he was stepping into a tough conference. Magnusson was a Mountain Valley Conference lifer, having played high school ball at Georges Valley, then coaching at Livermore Falls and Dirigo high schools. The Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, home to Mt. Blue, was a competitive mystery.

Now that Magnusson nears the end of his first regular season coaching in the KVAC, did the league measure up to his preconceptions?

“It’s better than I think I expected. One, you know you’re going to go up against a really good coach every night. All the coaches in this league are really good. All the teams play really hard. If anything, it’s a tougher league than I expected,” Magnusson said after his team’s 67-62 win over Lawrence on Tuesday night.

With the regular season winding down, the KVAC Class A division, also known as Class A North, is shaping up to be the most hard-to-predict eight-team field in the playoffs.

“It’s different than it has been for a long time. I hope it means the tournament is going to be a lot of fun,” Lawrence coach Jason Pellerin said. “I think all teams, one through eight, are going to go in with a lot of confidence saying, ‘Hey, we can all make a run.'”

In recent seasons, Class A North has been home to at least one dominant team each winter. In the last eight seasons, the top seed in the Class A North tournament entered the playoffs either undefeated or with one loss. That streak will end this season. With every team in the league playing at least 14 of 18 regular season games, no team has fewer than three losses. Through games played Tuesday, Cony sits in first place at 11-4, approximately five points ahead of Hampden (12-3).

“It’s kind of fun to watch, huh?” Messalonskee coach Peter McLaughlin said. “It’s whoever executes on that night.”

That one dominant team didn’t always survive the regional playoffs, however. McLaughlin pointed out that in 2017, when his Eagles won the Class A North tournament, they did so as the No. 5 seed, after undefeated Medomak Valley was upset by Skowhegan in the quarterfinals. This regular season is playing out like an extended tournament, with anybody capable of beating anybody else in any game.

“Once you get into the playoffs, it comes down to 32 minutes of fighting for your life,” McLaughlin said.

The top four appear set. In some order Cony, Hampden, Mt. Blue and Lawrence will be the top four seeds when the Class A North tournament begins at the Augusta Civic Center on February 16. Messalonskee and Erskine appear to have spots locked up. Then there’s Brewer, Skowhegan and Medomak Valley, three teams fighting for the final two spots in the tournament field. If you want the KVAC’s depth in a nutshell, it’s right there in those three teams playing basketball musical chairs for two spots.

“You have Medomak Valley with 10 wins, and they’re fighting for a playoff spot,” McLaughlin said.

The KVAC schedule has included close game after close game. Cony has a one-point win over Lawrence, and a pair of one-point losses, to Mt. Blue and Brewer. After Tuesday’s win over Lawrence in which Mt. Blue held an 11-point lead and rallied from a nine-point deficit — all in the first half — Magnusson shrugged. In the KVAC, that’s just the way it is. The win was the Cougars (10-4) sixth by five points or less.

“It’s a tough league. There’s no easy game. Every night, you’re playing somebody that’s just as good as you,” Magnusson said. “I think now we’ve had six or seven wins by five (points) or less. We’ve had a lot of close games, and it makes us better. We’ll be ready for tournament time.”

To McLaughlin, the parity is the result of youth. Many teams in the KVAC, including McLaughlin’s Eagles, rely on young players still learning to play varsity basketball. That leads to more inconsistent play. A team that looks unbeatable in one game can look dreadful the next.

“There’s a couple veteran groups, like Lawrence and Mt. Blue, but there’s a lot of youth in the league this year,” McLaughlin said.

Each preseason, the KVAC coaches release a preseason coaches poll of the expected top eight teams in the conference. Despite a season full of tight games, the coaches prediction for the 2018-19 season was accurate. Six of the eight preseason playoff projected teams currently hold a tournament spot, and Medomak Valley is within striking distance. Seven of the eight are within a spot or two of its predicted finish. McLaughlin expects tight games throughout the season to be the KVAC’s new normal.

“Next year I expect it to be the exact same way,” McLaughlin said. “We have a phenomenal group of coaches who get their teams prepared to play the right way.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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