The Gardiner girls basketball team poses with the championship trophy after winning the Class A/B central Maine basketball tournament championship on March 12 at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Gardiner girls basketball coach Mike Gray remembers when he told his team that there was going to be a playoff tournament, and the reaction it got.

“I tried to just kind of low-key introduce it at the end of practice one night, ‘Hey, by the way, there’s going to be a tournament,'” he said. “The excitement on their faces when they first found out about it was like ‘OK, we’ve got something to play for.'”

Most girls basketball teams in the area got that opportunity with the central Maine tournament, which was played with an 11-team A/B bracket (won by Gardiner) and an eight-team C/D bracket (won by Hall-Dale). The tournament came together midway through the season, and before its conception, teams expected to only play a 12-game slate, and had to adjust their goals accordingly.

For many, that goal became a competitive season that set the program up well going forward.

“We had a younger team, so our goal was some experience to prepare for the future,” Lawrence coach Greg Chesley said. “But also, basketball players and kids that play sports and coaches are a pretty competitive bunch. The goal, I think most days, was ‘let’s win the next game.’ Let’s not focus on what we’re not getting.”

Hall-Dale’s Jarod Richmond said the goal became to provide as close to the same experience as in years past as possible.

“I think it was to give the kids an opportunity to be involved in an activity and have some normalcy,” he said. “We really looked at it as a year to build and to grow. … It gave us an opportunity to compete against teams we don’t normally get a chance to play against. It was a chance to really work on some things and play some high-level competition and really not have that pressure of jockeying for Heal points.”

Coaches found out that even with no playoffs waiting and no crowds at games, their players took the court with the intensity they normally would.

“There was some of that talk early on, will it be a letdown? Will it be a pickup game or an AAU game?” Chesley said. “But I didn’t feel any of that. … It was pretty high-level basketball.”

“The summer league comparison is a good one. Especially at the beginning when we were getting used to not having fans at the games, it did have a little bit of that summer league feel,” Gray added. “Going in, we didn’t really know what to expect. But it became clear pretty soon after we got in the gym that our group of kids, they weren’t going to take that approach. They wanted to play.”

And then, when the tournament was announced on Feb. 12, those goals changed. Suddenly the season became like any other, with teams trying to win to secure high seeding and the home court advantage that came with it.

Gray, for instance, recalled a game late in the season against Cony in which his Tigers rallied back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to win and hold onto the No. 1 seed.

“I don’t know that we come back and win that game if there’s not anything extra on the line,” he said.

Hall-Dale girls basketball players react during the Class C/D central Maine tournament championship game against Carrabec on March 12 in Farmingdale. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Richmond could feel a sense of urgency kick in with the tournament in sight.

“If anything, everything became more heightened,” he said. “The girls really locked down late in the season, and really wanted to go after that No. 1 seed.”

When the playoffs started, for all that was different from the normal state tournament, coaches noticed the intensity of the games was almost exactly the same.

“Once we got to playoffs, things changed. I think they changed greatly. I could see the nerves on the kids and the jitters, and the anxiety and the anticipation and the excitement,” Chesley said. “I’d be hard-pressed to be able to see that the excitement wasn’t there when we were playing at the Folsom Gymnasium. It was still there, and when we went to Gardiner and played. The kids were fired up.”

Gray said the aura from the tournaments at the Augusta Civic Center was absent.

“You walk out of the locker room for the first time with a freshman who’s looking around at all the people in the crowd. That was missing,” Gray said. “The spectacle of it. But as far as the basketball itself? Those kids played to win. … The on-court basketball, there was no difference in approach, as far as the importance of winning those games.”

The end result was a season that was closer to the pre-COVID norm than anyone could have expected.

“Hopefully, this is just a weird, one-year thing that happened, and nothing like this ever happens again,” Gray said. “But that’s going to be a story forever, about that year we had to do it this way. And to the kids, there was a definite sense of importance to it.”

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