Winthrop’s Noah Grube, left, defends Maranacook’s Cash McClure during a game last week in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Even as the basketball season began with no postseason tournament on the calendar, Lawrence girls coach Greg Chesley had reason to think the deal wasn’t done quite yet.

“There were rumors, some rumblings coming around that this might happen. Some of the coaches, some of the ADs were talking about it,” he said. “We didn’t assume it was going to happen, but we all had our fingers crossed that it might.”

That wish was granted, as Winthrop athletic director Joel Stoneton organized a three-county tournament that will be played in lieu of state championships. Twenty-two teams from classes A through D from Kennebec, Franklin and Somerset counties will play for central Maine championships in A/B and C/D brackets, with games being played at the home of higher seeds during the first two weeks of March.

“The opportunity is unbelievable. The girls were so excited the other night when we announced that it really looked like it was going to happen,” Chesley said. “We would have taken this season under these conditions without a playoff, obviously. But to have any form of a postseason is just super exciting. It kind of re-energized us. It made us realize we’re not just working for nothing, we’re going to have a goal here. We’re going to have something to shoot for in the end.”

Players and coaches all season have stressed how fortunate they feel to be able to play at all this winter, given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic. The addition of a postseason tournament, however, fills a competitive outlet that was still unaddressed.

“Telling the kids at practice, that may have been the most excited I’ve seen them in a while,” Gardiner girls coach Mike Gray said. “They were just thrilled that there’s going to be something more. Not the Civic Center this week like we’d hoped, but something more than just wrapping up with 12 regular-season games.”

Hall-Dale boys coach Chris Ranslow said players will find it easier to lock in with the tournament as a clear objective.

Maine Central Institute defender Danielle Dow, left, snatches a rebound away from Waterville’s Kali Thompson, center, and Lindsay Given during a Jan. 19 game in Pittsfield. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Everybody rallies around it to say ‘OK, we’re not just going to go through the motions for 10 or 12 (games) and then wave goodbye to our opponents on the final night,'” he said. “There’s going to be something at the end to play for, and I think that cauterizes everybody. I think that binds everybody. If you weren’t paying full attention, now all of a sudden you’re hanging on every word, every play.”

Waterville senior forward Kali Thompson played on Purple Panthers teams that went deep into the Class B North playoffs the last two years at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. She said she was thankful to have another postseason experience to wrap up her career.

“We’re super grateful that they’re giving us something,” said Thompson, whose team began the week at 8-2. “They’re trying to make it as much of a normal season as they could for us. I know our team’s just super grateful to be playing.”

Cash McClure, a senior guard for the undefeated Maranacook boys, said the tournament fills in well for the state championship.

“I think it does, knowing the circumstances that we’re in right now,” he said. “Coach and all of us, we actually think we’re playing some tougher teams than we would this year in a normal B South tournament. It will be good. We’re really looking forward to it. … Now that we’re given something like this at the end, I think it does complete the season. It doesn’t feel like there’s a big gap left out of my senior year.”

Gardiner’s Lizzie Gruber, left, shoots over Morse defender Haley Kirkpatrick during a game earlier this season in Bath. Eli Canfield/The Times Record

The makeup of the tournament allows for matchups that normally wouldn’t happen in the postseason. Parker Desjardins and the two-time defending Class D champion Forest Hills boys basketball team can measure up to two-time defending Class C champion Winthrop and the top Mountain Valley Conference teams in the area. The high-scoring Maranacook boys will go up against strong Class A teams like Cony, Skowhegan, Lawrence and Messalonskee. The strong girls basketball programs of the Waterville area in Waterville, Winslow and Messalonskee will be together in one bracket.

“It’s very unique,” said Chesley, whose 6-1 Bulldogs figure to be a tough out in the A/B bracket. “I think it’s going to be even more unique and more special to give you some bragging rights in your area.”

Maranacook boys coach Travis Magnusson said he’s likewise intrigued by the matchups, and said the competitive field raises the stakes.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a coach that’s going to come into this like ‘Ah, it’s just a little tournament.’ This is the end-of-the-season tournament, and I think everybody’s going to treat it like a state championship,” he said. “I know we will. … We’re going to really focus on it and try to go as far as we can.

“We’ve said all along, we want to continue to prove we’re one of the best teams in the state, and this is a great way to do it. Playing against other good teams, and trying to be a champion at the end of it.”

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