Hall-Dale junior Iris Ireland, bottom, tries to get around Maranacook senior Kate Mohlar during a Feb. 6 game in Farmingdale. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

It started as a thought. Then there was an idea. Finally, a plan.

The central Maine basketball tournament that kicks off this coming week wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was the result of coaches for weeks wanting there to be something more to the season — and then one person stepping up to turn those desires into a reality.

“It’ll be a good piece for kids to end on, as well as give them something,” said Winthrop Athletic Director Joel Stoneton, who organized the tournament. “Even though it’s three weeks late and we’ll be finishing up the week before spring season starts, it’ll still be some form of normalcy that they can relate to.”

There will be four brackets, A/B and C/D for boys and girls. There are 10 teams in A/B boys, 11 in A/B girls and eight in C/D girls. Games are at the higher seeds, with order determined by Heal points.

It’s more than enough for teams to feel the familiar February excitement.

“I’m checking the Heal points every day, and we’re seeing where the standings are,” Maranacook boys coach Travis Magnusson said. “When you know that there’s something you’re shooting for, it seems like everywhere where I’m looking online and things like that, the season has a little bit more of a buzz now.”

Magnusson was one of the coaches talking about a postseason starting in December, after the Maine Principals’ Association announced that it would sponsor a regular season and that a postseason could be held at the schools’ discretion. But while there was interest, Magnusson noticed that the talks weren’t going anywhere.

Skowhegan’s Aryana Lewis, middle right, defends Messalonskee’s Shauna Clark (33) during a Feb. 23 game in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“I kind of learned from all of this that coaches can want to do things, and they can have really good intentions,” he said, “but nothing’s going to happen unless people above coaches make it happen.”

That’s where Stoneton came in. A member of the MPA football committee, Stoneton saw fall athletes play a limited season, and wanted to give basketball players more to play for. Shortly before the regular season started on Jan. 11, he began talking to Cony boys coach T.J. Maines about how a tournament could look and how it could become a reality.

“He was a coach that was going to talk to coaches and find out interest, and I was the AD that was going to find out interest, and we just made a good team,” Stoneton said. “We got things done.”

“I always thought we’d have it. It made too much sense,” Maines added. “Plus, Joel’s a guy that gets stuff done. It’s something the coaches wanted, and it’s in the best interest of the kids.”

Stoneton never hesitated to add organizing the tournament to his already busy calendar.

“It was just something I was really excited to take on,” he said. “I’ll sit back and sometimes I’ll (complain) about it and say ‘What the hell was I thinking?’… But there was no hesitation. When T.J. and I talked about it, I said ‘This is what I’m thinking,’ and he’s like ‘I’ve been thinking this, too. This is how we should do it.’ I said ‘Lets’ do it. We can’t wait.'”

Stoneton’s next task was emailing athletic directors to gauge interest, which he did on Jan. 12. The response was unanimously positive.

“I didn’t want to put an AD in a position (of) ‘Look, I’ve just been getting beat up because I don’t have fans there, I’m tired, I’m done, I don’t want to deal with more games.’ That would have been totally fine,” Stoneton said. “I know every AD that’s representing their schools, and I know they have kids at the forefront. I wasn’t surprised at all.”

Stoneton also looped in Magnusson, who pushed for the idea of involving the bordering counties of Kennebec, Franklin and Somerset. Stoneton said the plan all along was to use Heal points, and as the days went by, he worked to make sure schools were still in, that trophies were taken care of, and that schools had time clear so that the rounds could be scheduled.

“It took a lot of time to communicate, to talk to people, to explain things, to get opinions,” said Stoneton, who on Wednesday said he’s spent between 30 and 40 hours organizing the event. “Really, it just came down to communication. It came down to a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls.”

It was a long process, but it was a smooth one too. Stoneton didn’t have obstacles to clear, permission to get, or uncooperative ADs and coaches to battle.

“It wouldn’t work if coaches were complaining,” Maines said.

The Cony and Lawrence boys basketball teams compete during a Feb. 4 game in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“It’s so natural doing this type of thing,” Stoneton said. “The project was really smooth. … People stepped up when they needed to step up.”

Finally, on Feb. 12, Stoneton sent another email out. The tournament was a go.

“It’s not something that a coach can put together,” Maines said. “(Stoneton) was determined to have something for the kids. We have a lot of kid-first ADs.”

There are caveats. With March 12 looming as the last day to play postseason basketball, and the threat of COVID still hanging overhead, teams know the stakes. One positive COVID test, one order to shut down, and that team is out of the tournament. It’s not a punishment; there’s simply no spare time remaining for a team to return to the court.

“(It’s) a very harsh reality,” Stoneton said. “You can be as vigilant as you want, and you still have the chance that it could happen by a role of the dice.”

Provided they avoid that pitfall, teams will be able to compete in an intriguing event. Higher seeds get to play at home, which Magnusson said rewards teams that approached the regular season most competitively.

“It makes the games that we’ve had even more valuable,” he said. “Some years, if you’re just going to play all your games at Portland anyway, it doesn’t matter if you go 1, 2 or 3 because it’s all about who you match up with. Here, it does matter.”

By opening up the field to three counties, the potential is set for competitive, high-profile games. Magnusson pointed to the girls A/B bracket, which will feature Maranacook, Waterville, Gardiner, Skowhegan and Lawrence, all of whom were regional semifinalists or better last season.

“I think you could see some really unique matchups, on both sides,” he said. “I think it’d be pretty cool to see Forest Hills, which has won the last two Class D championships, playing against a Winthrop who’s won the last two Class C championships. That’s something you would never see, and you might get to see it in this tournament.”

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