Monmouth’s Manny Calder barrels past Hall-Dale’s TJ Wilson during Thursday night’s basketball game in Monmouth. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The free throw line is still 15 feet from the hoop, and the rim is still 10 feet above the court. That’s what is the same about high school basketball in Maine this winter.

So, so much is different, though. As the state continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the concessions made to simply get on the court have been numerous. All players, coaches, and officials must wear masks throughout the game. Limits on crowd size to no more than 50 at an event means fans must rely on live streams of games. The basketball tournament, an annual late-February, early-March reminder that spring is coming, is off this season. The Gold Ball chase is on hold. Conference play is out. Regional play, regardless of classification, is in.

“We’re fortunate to be able to play. We’ll take advantage of it,” Skowhegan boys basketball coach Tom Nadeau said.

Here’s a look at how central Maine boys basketball teams are approaching this season unlike any other.

 

Empty gyms

Cony head coach T.J. Maines  said his team has definitely noticed the lack of crowds in the few games it has played thus far.

“We’re certainly more relaxed before a game. Even in warmups, kids aren’t flying out of the locker room,” Maines said. “We’ve played two games, and our highest scoring quarter in each is the first quarter.”

While gyms at bigger schools can feel like museums without cheering spectators on hand, smaller gyms at smaller schools still feel packed. At Forest Hills, the two-time defending Class D state champion, two teams spread out and social distanced fill the tiny gym well, coach Anthony Amero said.

Coaches and players are learning there are no secrets in an empty gym, and the livestream microphones pick up everything.

“What we say on the floor is heard by everybody,” Maines said. “It’s made me mindful of what I say.”

The Erskine and Maranacook boys basketball teams compete during a Jan. 12 game in Readfield. Players on the bench were kept separated to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

New rivalries

Isolated in the northern corner of Somerset County, Forest Hills’ typical schedule includes long road trips to the island schools like Vinalhaven and Islesboro, or neutral site games in the Waterville or Augusta area against teams from southern Maine. Those games aren’t possible this season, so the Tigers are playing Class C teams like Madison, Carrabec and Mt. Abram.

“As a coach I love it because I feel like my boys can compete with those teams,” Amero said. “The lesson for us is, we can’t get in foul trouble against those deeper teams. And this is the shortest I’ve traveled in 24 years.”

Defending Class C champion Winthrop relished adding Class A to a tough schedule that also includes traditional rivals like Boothbay.

“Something I’ve always wanted to do is play more local schools. I love playing Cony. We have an opportunity to create new rivalries,” Winthrop coach Todd MacArthur said. “Even if you lose, you gain something. Playing against Cony, it’s a completely different style than anything we’ve seen.”

Maines’ Rans are known for getting out and running the court, pushing the tempo to the red line. Playing in masks this season, that’s not easy.

“Guys are getting gassed a lot quicker. Guys aren’t able to sustain eight minutes straight the way we want to play. We were definitely more out of shape than usual coming into the season,” Maines said.

 

No tournament

Coaches typically look for their teams to steadily improve so by the time they hit the tournament in late-February, they are peaking and playing their best basketball. The goal of improving game to game is still there, but without the tournament as motivation, that improvement is harder to quantify. Everybody is happy to be playing at all, but the lack of a championship at the end hasn’t sat well with everyone.

“No, I’ve been pretty upset whenever somebody tells me ‘Hey, at least you get a season.’ Because in my mind, the reason that we play is to win the state championship. So the fact that there’s no MPA tournament at the end of the season, that’s a pretty big bummer, and a lot of the guys are pretty upset about that,” said Maranacook senior guard Cash McClure, who along with his team lost a double overtime thriller to Caribou in the Class B state championship game last season. “But I know that our coach and some other coaches are pushing to get something either at the end of the season or in the summer, when things clear up a little bit. Just like a tournament to kind of keep the same feel as a normal season, because I think we had a really good chance this year to win it all. Just seeing that chance kind of go down the drain really sucks.”

Maines said coaches at Kennebec County schools are considering a county tournament at the end of the season. Amero said the same thing is being discussed in Somerset County. For seniors like McClure, the prospects of a county championship are little consolation to the lost opportunity for a state championship. Coaches now must balance the goals of the future, which may include getting younger players more varsity minutes in anticipation of a normal 2021-22 season, with the needs of upperclassmen trying to close out their high school careers with good seasons.

“There’s two issues. You’re tying to grow your program so you can compete when things are back to normal. But you also owe it to your seniors to treat it like any other year. I’ve got some seniors who are part of two state championship teams. With everything they’ve given, they deserve the same passion given back to them,” MacArthur said.

I have two seniors Parker Desjardins and Joey Poulin, and they’ve gotten it,” Amero said. “They want the younger guys to improve, and they take ownership in that.”

The Winthrop and Cony boys basketball teams played a scrimmage in a near-empty gym earlier this season. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Looming over everything is the shadow of the pandemic. Teams in four counties deemed yellow by the state Department of Education — Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford, and York — just received the go-ahead to begin competing this week. Some schools in green counties, including Messalonskee and Gardiner in Kennebec County, have paused seasons in response to local COVID-19 cases.

The season can end abruptly. Everyone playing knows and respects that.

“”We need to play like it could end tomorrow,” MacArthur said. “The kids know they have to play hard.”

Usually, there’s a point in the season that feels like a grind, Maines said. He doesn’t anticipate that happening this season.

“I have not heard a single complaint from any kids. They already lost one season,” Maines said. “Guys truly are thankful they’re able to play. There’s an appreciation we didn’t have before.”

Staff Writer Drew Bonifant contributed to this story. 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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