Stakes high in boys basketball prelims

Twelve boys basketball games are scheduled around northern Maine on Wednesday evening.

They’re postseason games in the sense that teams had to earn their way into the preliminary-round contests, but the level of anxiety may be even greater than any games to follow because without a victory on Wednesday there is no opportunity to perform on the biggest stage.

Players and coaches throughout the County, Down East or central Maine play basketball both winter and summer for the chance to “get to the Cross Center,” words that have comfortably replaced the chance to “get to the Mecca” back when the Bangor Auditorium was still in vogue.

For 24 teams in Classes B, C and D, the chance to achieve that goal comes Wednesday night.

Class B North
No. 9 Belfast (8-10) at No. 8 Caribou (6-12): The records don’t lie, as both teams had up-and-down regular seasons. But two wins by Caribou over Class C No. 5 seed and 14-game winner Fort Kent helped earn the Vikings the home game while Belfast has played a lot of strong teams tough, suggesting a typically tight 8-9 encounter.

No. 10 Maine Central Institute (9-9) at No, 7 Washington Academy (13-5): MCI has slumped offensively of late, leading to a 2-5 mark in its last seven games. Washington Academy was perhaps the first team in the North to complete its regular season, as nearly two weeks have elapsed since a Feb. 1 win at John Bapst of Bangor extended the Raiders’ current winning streak to five games.

No. 11 Orono (6-12) at No. 6 Ellsworth (11-7): Orono used a two-point win over Old Town on the final night of the season to slip past Foxcroft Academy and into the final playoff spot. The youthful Red Riots are without one of their most experienced players in junior forward Conner Robertson, sidelined by a knee injury. Ellsworth has won seven of its last nine games — losing only to defending Class B state champion Mount Desert Island and two-time reigning Class C state champ George Stevens Academy during that stretch. Ellsworth has defeated Orono twice this season, both in December.

Class C North
No. 9 Houlton (14-4) at No. 8 Lee Academy (13-5): Two of the seven teams with at least 12 wins to face a prelim in this highly congested division square off for the right to challenge George Stevens in next week’s quarterfinals. Both Houlton and Lee seemingly are peaking at the right time, with Houlton winning six of its final seven regular-season games and Lee winning five in a row heading into postseason play.

No. 10 Bucksport (15-3) at No. 7 Piscataquis (11-7): Recent performances suggest these teams have trended in opposite directions, with Bucksport riding an eight-game winning streak while PCHS dropped its last four outings. Two of Bucksport’s losses came against George Stevens, the first in overtime. PCHS senior Bryce Gilbert and Bucksport junior Tyson Gray are two of the better scorers in the division.

No. 11 Calais (7-11) at No. 6 Penobscot Valley (13-5): Calais has lost four of its last five against opponents — Washington Academy, Lee, Bucksport and Houlton — with a combined 55-17 record while its lone victory during that stretch came at Class D leader Woodland (15-3). Penobscot Valley won nine straight to steadily climb up the rankings before dropping its finale to Class D South-leading Greenville.

No. 12 Dexter (11-7) at No. 5 Fort Kent (14-4): Both teams were hurt somewhat by strength of schedule, as Dexter hovered near the bottom of the playoff-eligible teams throughout the winter while Fort Kent struggled against its stiffest opposition, falling twice to Caribou while splitting with Fort Fairfield and Woodland.

No. 13 Madawaska (11-7) at No. 4 Central Aroostook (13-5): Central Aroostook defeated Madawaska by 30 and 37 points in their two regular-season meetings, leaving the Panthers favored to extend what has been a strong season in their move up from Class D.

No. 14 Sumner (8-10) at No. 3 Mattanawcook Academy (12-6): Mattanawcook already has 11 more victories this winter than it had as a Class B program last year. The Lynx also are battle tested, with their last nine games (5-4) decided by an average of 5.4 points. Sumner of East Sullivan earned its postseason spot largely thanks to a midseason victory over Bucksport, the Golden Bucks only loss that didn’t come against top-ranked George Stevens Academy.

Class D North
No. 9 Deer Isle-Stonington (4-12) at No. 8 Bangor Christian (5-13): Both records here are influenced by strength of schedule, with Deer Isle-Stonington playing half of its games and Bangor Christian 10 of its 18 games against Class C opposition. The particular numbers worth noting are their head-to-head battles, with Bangor Christian winning 52-48 at home on Jan. 4 and Deer Isle-Stonington winning 58-57 at home on Jan. 29.

No. 10 Southern Aroostook (6-12) at No. 7 Easton (11-7): Easton has played well as of late with a 57-49 win over No. 3 Katahdin of Stacyville part of a four-game winning streak before a season-ending loss at Class C No. 2 Fort Fairfield. These teams split their regular-season meetings, with Easton winning 70-38 at Dyer Brook on Dec. 22 and Southern Aroostook winning 50-38 at Easton on Jan. 8.

No. 11 Shead (6-12) at No. 6 Machias (11-7): These Downeast Athletic Conference rivals also meet for the third time this season with a trip to Bangor on the line. This Machias team doesn’t have the size of its 2017 state championship squad, but guard Jeremy Grant is a 1,000-point scorer for the Bulldogs, which defeated Shead 68-53 at home on Dec. 11 and 60-36 at Eastport on Jan. 23, Machias has won its last six games while Shead has dropped its last six outings.

Ernie Clark

About Ernie Clark

I'm a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, my coverage areas range from high school sports to mixed martial arts.