Possible basketball tournament changes on the horizon

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Brunswick’s girls’ basketball team played in the state final in Augusta earlier this month. Some changes to the tournament are being proposed, although Brunswick, Morse and Mt. Ararat will likely be unaffected.

Maine’s five-class format for high school basketball recently completed its second year, but momentum is building for changes to the large-school class. 

The future of Class AA basketball, both its North-South format and its tournament site, is expected to be discussed when the basketball committee of the Maine Principals’ Association meets March 31 in Augusta.

One possible change could replace the North and South divisions of Class AA and their separate regional tournaments with a single 16-team division and one championship tournament for the state’s largest basketball-playing schools.

Opponents to such a change cite the fact Class AA schools would not have the chance to compete for a regional championship like schools in the other four classes. Class AA schools now only have to be the best in a field of eight schools to win a regional crown, compared to between 13 and 18 schools in each region of the other classes.

One alternative suggested by supporters of retaining a two-region Class AA would add teams in both the North and South regions to give it approximately the same number of teams as the state’s other classes.

That’s unlikely to happen because a primary reason for adding a fifth class was to decrease the number of students between the largest and smallest schools in each class with the goal of improving competitive balance.

In Class A, the largest schools based on their enrollments for the current two-year classification cycle are Brunswick (821 students), Mt. Ararat of Topsham (804), Messalonskee of Oakland (784), Skowhegan (775) and Biddeford (775). All have several hundred fewer students than the largest schools in Class AA, Thornton Academy of Saco (1,422) and Lewiston (1,318).

Whether Class AA becomes a single division or not, it’s possible the entire tournament for that class could be moved to Portland — for at least two reasons.

One would be to alleviate the pressure on the tightly scheduled Augusta Civic Center, which hosts the Classes AA and A North regions as well as the Classes C and D South tourneys.

The Augusta site has few open dates during tournament week to accommodate postponements. Tourney officials around the state were grateful to Mother Nature this year, with only the Class AA girls quarterfinals pushed back one night due to weather concerns.

Portland, by contrast, has two venues available for tournament games in the Cross Insurance Arena and the Portland Exposition Building. The state’s largest city hosts the Class AA, A and B South tournaments.

Another reason to base Class AA entirely in Portland involves geographics and economics.

Nearly every school in Class AA North is located closer to Portland than it is to Augusta, save for Bangor and close calls with schools in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Fans, including students, from the three Portland schools in Class AA North — Portland, Cheverus and Deering — have been reluctant or otherwise unable to make the 50-mile trek up Interstate 95 to Augusta for the regional tournament.

Reasons posited for the lack of northward mobility include the reality that students living in Greater Portland are much more reliant on public transportation than their more rural brethren.

Crowds for the early rounds of the Class AA North tournament in Augusta were sparse for the second straight year, smaller than nearly all sessions of the Classes B, C and D North tournament in Bangor.

And while the 2016 Class AA boys state championship game between Portland and South Portland at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland was a sellout, their state-final rematch in Augusta drew a markedly smaller crowd.

“State championship attendance was outstanding for A, B, C, and D,” said MPA executive director Dick Durost in an email. “Class AA states were down compared to the previous year in Portland.”

Elsewhere around the state there’s been few complaints about the five-class format.

The move to five classes has been a boon for attendance at the Class B North tourney in Bangor where crowds boasted a significant increase in the first year of the new format in 2016 and reportedly maintained a similar pace this year.

The additional class has boosted championship aspirations for more teams from around the state, in particular many smaller schools that now believe their chances are more realistic than when they were challenged by opponents with double or even triple their enrollments under the four-class system.

Of course, future enrollment trends may prompt additional classification changes that could prove controversial. But the widespread geographic nature of Maine’s schools and the paucity of larger cities in the northern half of the state makes it nearly impossible to please all of the basketball community all of the time.

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