It’s an opportunity that’s always been there for their predecessors. Now, the state’s current high school basketball players find themselves with no chance to compete in an event that’s been a lifelong dream.
The 2021 basketball season will not end with players cutting down nets in Bangor, Portland and Augusta or bringing regional title plaques and Gold Balls back to their respective communities. It’s a notion that would otherwise seem surreal in the throes of a Maine winter, but in the midst of a pandemic that’s changed the world, it’s happened.
“It sucks,” said Deer Isle-Stonington girls’ head coach Randy Shepard, not mincing his words after the Mariners’ season-opening win against Bucksport last month. “That’s always something the kids look forward to. They work really hard to get there. It’s just too bad.”
The cancellation of the state tournament was announced Nov. 20, shortly before teams were set to begin skills and conditioning exercises. The move followed a two-week delay of the winter sports season, which had originally been scheduled to begin Nov. 16.
That announcement, though heartbreaking, was not unexpected for Hancock County athletes. Even before the words officially appeared in writing, Ellsworth’s Hunter Curtis knew that state guidelines made the possibility of a 2021 tournament an unlikely one.
“Playing in that tournament is always the high point of the season,” Curtis told The American a week before the cancellation was made official. “It’s really special, and you always look forward to it. … It’s hard to think that we won’t get it.”
Curtis and the Ellsworth boys had been hoping to get back to the tournament this year after a run all the way to the Northern Maine final a season ago. Andy Pooler’s Ellsworth girls’ team, which earned a trip to the Cross Center last year after a thrilling prelim win over Mount Desert Island, was hoping to make a return trip this year with seven seniors and a talented group of underclassmen returning.
“We’re playing well, and when tournament time is coming up, there’s always that chance you can get to Bangor and then go on a run,” Pooler said. “It’s going to be tough when we get to that last game and then just have nothing after that.”
Those senior-laden teams stand to lose the most from the cancellation of this year’s tournament. Many of those senior groups had been competing together since the days of youth basketball and had no idea when they walked off the floor a year ago that they would not be getting another tourney week experience.
Some of those teams had serious Gold Ball aspirations this season. Deer Isle-Stonington’s girls’ team, which went 18-3 with a Class D North final birth last year, had hoped to showcase a strong group of returnees and newcomers, and the boys’ team, led by reigning Hancock County scoring leader Myles Brown (22.6 points per game), had hoped to better last year’s regional semifinal showing.
“We’ve come all this way together, and it’s too bad we can’t try for a [Gold Ball],” Brown said. “That was our goal, but for now, we have to focus on trying to win every game and then winning our tournament at the end with some of the regional teams.”
Tournaments such as that to which Brown alluded are still in the works across various conferences and locations throughout the state. Such events can be held as long as they adhere to Level 4 of the state’s guidelines on community sports, which allow teams to play opponents in their own counties or in adjacent counties.
Still, there is disappointment to be found when athletes and coaches reflect on what’s typically taking place this time of year. In lieu of planning trips to Bangor and playing in front of their friends, family members and thousands more, they’re preparing for games in front of empty gymnasiums.
Even worse, the loss of this year’s tournament comes at a time when a distraction from a difficult period in world affairs is sorely needed. Instead, one of Maine’s winter traditions has found itself among the many annual events lost amidst a deadly pandemic.
“You get excited when you know that time of year is coming and think about the whole town coming out to see you,” Pooler said. “Basketball in Maine is definitely something that has that healing power. It’s great to have some form of it to bring some calm, but the tournament is definitely going to be missed.”