In a way, it’s never been about basketball at all.
Every February, people from all over the state travel to arenas in Bangor, Augusta and Portland for a Maine high school sporting event like no other. It’s a two-week marathon in which some dreams are made, others are shattered and the impossible becomes reality.
Yet for as much as the Maine high school basketball tournament is about what takes place on the court, it’s also a tribute to what makes the state whole. For two weeks, different places, ways of life, cultures and experiences are brought together as tens of thousands filter through three of the state’s largest cities.
“It’s a special time of year,” Mount Desert Island Athletic Director Bunky Dow said. “It’s a great time for everyone to come together. You really see a lot of town pride and people coming out to support their teams. It really is like a celebration.”
For nearly a century now, that celebration has been the source of thousands of memories for those from Downeast, the western mountains and valleys, the fields of Aroostook County and everywhere in between. With no new memories to be made this year, Mainers have been left to recount those of years gone by and hope that the tourney can return for its 100th anniversary in 2022.
The first state tournament, which included Northeast Harbor, Eastport, Jonesport, Bangor, Limestone, Rumford, South Portland and Woodstock (Bryant Pond), was held at Lewiston City Hall in 1922 as the Bates College Interscholastic Basketball Tournament. With no qualifying process at the time, participants were chosen by Bates Athletic Director Carl H. Smith and sports writers from local newspapers.
With each passing year, the tournament grew in size and scope. In 1923, the field was separated into Eastern Maine and Western Maine tournaments to be held at different locations throughout the state. In 1948, the addition of a small-school (Class S) state championship began a classification expansion that has continued to this day.
Then, in 1955, came a new state-of-the-art facility that would become unparalleled in Maine basketball lore: the Bangor Auditorium. For nearly six decades, “Mecca,” as the building was known, was the theater of dreams for teams from Hancock County and all across the eastern and northern portions of the state.
“When you walked into that building, it was like you could feel the ghosts,” said Shannon Curtis, who played for the Ellsworth girls’ team from 1991-95. “From the smell of it to the feel of it, the atmosphere was just right. There was no place like it.”
Outside, the V-shaped building defined the skyline in the Queen City. Inside, players, coaches and fans say, the building’s unique structure made for an environment that was, in both scenery and acoustics, unforgettable.
“It was built for basketball,” said Dwayne Carter, who won state championships with George Stevens Academy as a player in 1979, assistant coach in 2003 and the team’s head coach in 2016, 2017 and 2018. “It was a big tin can that was so loud that you couldn’t hear when you were playing or coaching, but that’s also what made [the atmosphere] great.”
Yet for all of its early glory days, the event didn’t become whole until the introduction of the girls’ tournament in 1975. With more players taking part in the tourney action, players such as MDI’s Bracey Barker and Sarah Phelps, GSA’s Morgan Dauk and Deer Isle-Stonington’s Sharon Siebert made their own marks on tourney history.
After the 2013 tournament, the Bangor Auditorium bid farewell. Its replacement, the Cross Insurance Center, has hosted the Eastern Maine and Northern Maine tournaments for Class B, Class C and Class D ever since.
In just seven years, the Cross Center has seen its own share of history. The buzzer-beaters by GSA’s Jarrod Chase in 2017 and MDI’s Julia Watras in 2019 will remain legendary tournament moments forever, and last year’s Class B boys’ championship thriller between Caribou and Maranacook will go down as one of the all-time great games.
Then, of course, there was the unforgettable 2016 Class B North boys’ semifinal contest between Ellsworth and Caribou. The Eagles first forced overtime as Bryce Harmon drove the length of the floor with just seconds remaining to nail a 3-pointer with no time left, and senior Bruce St. Peter then gave Ellsworth a 42-40 win in the extra period with an off-balance jumper as time expired.
“I can’t say that I enjoyed how stressful it was when it was happening, but looking back on it, what a game,” said Ellsworth head coach Peter Austin. “Bryce’s shot was the best shot I’ve seen coaching, and the St. Peter one to win it was also special.”
Regardless of the city or the arena, trips to games have become a rite of passage in Hancock County communities during tournament time. Such becomes evident on Route 3 and Route 15 exits in Bar Harbor and Deer Isle, respectively, where signs saying, “Last one off the island, turn out the lights!” can be seen on fence posts every February.
In the stands, the fans trickling in and out over the course of a winter morning and afternoon tell stories of life across the state. From the lobstermen of Downeast to the potato farmers of Houlton and Fort Fairfield to the mill workers of Lincoln and Millinocket, the tournament is a time of year when many ways of life converge.
“It’s a diverse state, for sure, and basketball is something that brings a lot of the different communities together,” Carter. “You have people from all over who come to watch. It really shows how our state does a good job with basketball compared to what some of the other states do.”
As years go by, the daughters, sons, nieces and nephews of old tournament stars carve their own places in the event’s storied history. At GSA, Carter’s exploits came years after his uncle, Gordon, led the Eagles to the 1948 small-school title; at Ellsworth, Curtis has watched her two eldest sons, Jackson and Hunter, make tourney runs a quarter-century after her squad won the regional crown.
“We’re a pretty competitive family, so I like to joke with them that I got to play 10 games in the Auditorium while they only got to play five at the Cross Center,” Curtis said. “There’s a lot of families like that. It’s something that lives on through the generations.”
Between the rebranding of the Eastern and Western Maine tournaments, the addition of a girls’ tournament, the expansion to five class sizes and the move to new arenas, today’s tourney is vastly different from the event that first took place 99 years ago in Lewiston. Yet those changes have also reflected the tournament’s growth into the event that’s defined winter life throughout the state.
Sadly, the 100th edition of that tournament, which would have begun last week, will have to wait another year. When it returns, though, folks itching for the tourney’s return after a winter without the action will be ready for a party that’s bigger than ever before.
“It’s definitely one of the things people are missing the most about this winter,” Dow said. “It’s hard that we can’t have it this year, but next year, when things are hopefully back to normal, it’ll mean even more.”