PORTLAND — It’s the most wonderful time of the year, at least for high school sports fans in Maine, as the postseason basketball tournaments get underway in full force tonight with the start of the quarterfinal rounds for the Class A boys.

Classes B, C and D will follow over the next few days at locales in Portland, Augusta and Bangor, all eventually culminating in the crowning of eight Gold Ball champions on Feb. 28 and March 1.

With four local teams left in the competition, here’s a preview of all four’s quarterfinals, in chronological order:

No. 6 Sanford (13-6) vs. No. 3 Bonny Eagle (17-1)

Western Maine Class A boys

7 p.m. Saturday at the Portland Expo

After dominating Windham on the way to an easy 63-35 victory in the prelims, Sanford is left to contemplate a problem not many have been able to solve over the past four years ”“ shutting down, or at least hindering, Bonny Eagle, and in particular, Dustin Cole.

There’s no secret that Cole ”“ a senior point guard ”“ is perhaps the best player in the state, and has been since his freshman season, leading the Scots to the Western Maine final each of the past three seasons.

This year, Cole led the SMAA in both points per game (24.5) and assists (7.8) per game, spearheading a Scots offense that led the SMAA in scoring with 70.2 points a game.

But it’s far from just Cole. Junior guard Ben Malloy has chipped in 13.1”“ including a league best 3.3 3-pointers ”“ points a game, while senior transfers Nate Alexander and Jon Woods have added grit, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where the Scots gave up just 50.4 points a game.

All in all, it’s a tall order to meet for anyone.

“We’re going to have to play really well,” Sanford coach Paul Nolette said after the Windham victory. “We’re going to have to rebound well, we’re going to have to be able to handle their pressure and we’re going to have to execute on the offensive end.”

Sanford was in a similar position last year, when, after a prelim victory over Marshwood, they were beaten handily beaten by top-seeded South Portland in a quarterfinal at the Expo. With the bulk of that returning, the stage isn’t likely to seem quite as large this season.

“I think now we’re more of a team than last year,” said Sanford senior John Morgan. “We’re going to feel a little more comfortable in the big show. We can play with the big boys and in that kind of atmosphere, and we just want to show we can play better than last year.”

If the Spartans are to pull the upset, Morgan very likely will have to be at the center of it. The forward was one of the most consistent players in the SMAA all season, coming in third in scoring with 17.8 points a game, including hitting double figures in each of the last 17.

Morgan will be helped by senior point guard Evyn Nolette, who did a lot of everything for the Spartans this season, averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 assists while showing an ability to go off in big games, such as hitting seven 3-pointers and scoring 17 of the Spartans’ 21 points in an important 63-60 come-from-behind victory against Noble.

Nolette, who averaged 2.2 steals as well, will also likely draw the bulk of the defensive assignment against Cole, while athletic forward Josh Schroder will be relied upon for rebounding and lots of energy down low.

The winner will move on to face either No. 7 Cheverus or No. 2 Falmouth in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the opening game at the revamped Cumberland County Civic Center.

No. 7 Windham (12-7) vs. No. 3 Thornton Academy (16-2)

Western Maine Class A girls

3:30 p.m. Monday at the Portland Expo

For fans of defense, this one will likely be for you.

Thornton had the best defense in the SMAA during the regular-season, allowing 34.9 points a game and giving up more than 40 points just four times.

Not far behind was Windham, who had the fourth-best defense in the league with 38.9 points allowed a game, a defense that was in fine form during Wednesday night’s 35-23 prelim victory over Sanford.

It was just that kind of low-scoring struggle when the teams met in Saco on Jan. 14, a 37-24 T.A. win that saw the Eagles score no points in the third quarter. Windham coach Brody Artes doesn’t expect too much different the second time around.

“T.A. plays very, very good defense,” Artes said. “They’ve held a lot of really good teams to a lot of low points on the year, so we’ve got to make sure we execute offensively. I’m very confident with what we’re doing on the defensive end of the floor, so it’s going to come down to who can score the most, obviously.”

The big difference in that first game was Olivia Shaw, who scored a game-high 15 points and was the Golden Trojans’ top scorer this season with 12.5 points per game who is also a key rebounder down low.

Shaw, a 6-foot senior forward, missed three games in the later part of the season with back pain that’s bothered her throughout her high school career, but returned in the regular-season finale to score 15 points in a win over Biddeford; the Trojans will have had 10 full days off before hitting the floor on Monday, giving plenty of time to clear up any nagging injuries.

In addition to Shaw, 5-foot-11-inch junior center Abigail Strickland has emerged as a force down low for the Trojans this season, averaging 5.9 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, the latter the fourth-best in the SMAA.

Junior point guard Katie McCrum, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, has made a welcome return this winter, averaging a league best 4.4 assists per game while also scoring at a 10.3-points-a-game clip.

Sophomore forward Ashley Howe has added much-needed secondary scoring with 6.5 points a game, while freshman Isabella Robinson has also been a presence off the bench, no more so than when she scored 14 huge points as T.A. ended McAuley’s 56-game winning streak in a 50-49 thriller.

If they’re to pull that kind on upset on Monday, the Eagles will have to rely on its sophomore standout Sadie Nelson, who leads the Eagles in both points (15.3) and rebounds a game (7.9 a game).

Nelson’s fellow 5-foot-10-inch forward Lonnie Staten will also be relied on to combat Shaw and Strickland inside, while point guard Sam Frost ”“ who did a masterful job in holding Sanford leading-scorer Morgan Fogg to just two points in the prelim ”“ will be asked to do a similar job on McCrum while also running the offense.

“It’s really important that we create a lot of good shots and crash the glass,” Artes said. “I think we have a good opportunity, but they’re a very good team and they’ve had a very good year, so they’re going to be riding that wave as well.”

The winner will move on to face the winner of the quarterfinal between No. 3 South Portland and No. 6 Cheverus, in a semifinal at 6 p.m. next Friday in the Cumberland County Civic Center.

No. 6 Gray New-Gloucester (11-7) vs. Wells (16-2)

Western Maine Class B girls

2 p.m. Tuesday at the Portland Expo

In just two short years, these two teams have built up quite a rivalry.

In last year’s prelims, the 11th-seeded Warriors made the trip up I-95 and stunned No. 6 seeded Gray-New Gloucester 53-46, the start of a run that ended with Wells one possession away from a berth in the regional final

Then this past December, it was the Patriots getting a modestly-sized slice of revenge when they topped the then-unbeaten Warriors ”“ who just a night before had toppled two-time defending regional champion Lake Region ”“ 28-24 in a defensive slugfest.

“They’re one of the two teams who beat us, so there’s an added motivation for our girls to be able to come back and hopefully avenge that loss,” Wells coach Don Abbott said. “But there’s also a realization that we’re going to need to be at our best to beat that.

“I don’t think we were the first time who faced them, and you saw what happens. They’re tough and we’ll definitely need to be at our best to beat them.”

The Patriots are led by senior standout Maria Valente, who leads the team in points (15.1), rebounds (8.1), assists (2.4) and steals (3.6) per game, while senior Stephanie Greaton has added 8.1 points and 7.5 boards a game and junior Maria Dumont 9.2 points and 1.4 assists a contest.

“They’re a team that likes to get to the basket and get to the rim,” Abbott said. “Some teams are really built on the outside shot, and it’s not to say they don’t have kids who can shoot from the outside, but they’re much more of a middle range, get to the basket and get to the free-throw line type of team.

“To be successful we certainly need to contain dribble penetration and stop them from being able to get to the basket. That will be our primary focus.”

Like Valente, senior do-it-all forward Alison Furness has stuffed the stat sheet for the Warriors, averaging 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, two assists and 2.7 steals a game. She’s been aided by low-post presence Jordan Agger (6.7 points, 5.3 boards a game), while point guard Nicole Moody has run the show to the tune of 3.8 assists and 2.9 steals per game.

The senior-laden Warriors were one of the most consistent scoring teams in the Western Maine Conference across the entirety of the regular season as well, averaging 49.4 points a game and scoring while giving up just 31.2. They’ll hope that steadiness carries over into the postseason, and turns into a win over Gray-New Gloucester for the second February in a row.

“There’s a certain finality to a tournament game,” Abbott said. “So I think that both teams will be sharp and both teams will be ready to play. We’re looking to forward to facing them.”

The winner will move on to face the winner of the quarterfinal between No. 7 Fryeburg Academy, who dealt Wells its only other loss of the season, and No. 2 Spruce Mountain, who Wells upset in the quarterfinals a season ago, in the semifinals at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

No. 5 Madison (13-6) vs. No. 4 Old Orchard Beach (14-5)

Western Maine Class C girls

7 p.m. Tuesday at the Portland Expo

The beauty of the high school basketball tournament, at least when it comes to Old Orchard Beach, comes in its mystery.

As one of the few Class C teams playing in the Western Maine Conference, the Seagulls’ regular-season schedule is made up of teams from Classes B, C and even D, and OOB played against just two of the other teams that make up the final eight in Western Class C ”“ No. 7 Kents Hill and No. 6 Waynflete, going 1-1 against both.

OOB already got a taste of that up-state mystery-factor in a 59-46 victory over Boothbay Region in Tuesday’s prelim, and will get another test in Madison, the school that knocked out the Seagulls with a 46-40 victory in last year’s semifinals.

The Bulldogs were again one of the top teams in the Mountain Valley Conference this season, with two of their losses six coming to Class B power Spruce Mountain and two more to St. Dominic’s and Carrabec, who enter the Class C tournament as the top two seeds.

Unsurprisingly, OOB and Madison have just two common opponents on the season ”“ the two teams they beat in the prelims. Old Orchard Beach topped Boothbay Region 59-46 on Tuesday, the same night Madison came away with a 59-48 victory against Traip Academy.

The Seagulls had beaten Traip twice this season, by 12 and 14 points, while the Bulldogs had beaten Boothbay 46-35 in their only meeting; in other words, there’s not a whole lot to go by.

What the two teams do have in common is balanced scoring, as shown in the prelim wins. Madison was led by Cristie Vicneire’s 19 points ”“ including 11 free throws ”“ and Alexandria Jarvais’ 15, but also got eight points from Kirstin Wood and seven apiece out of Kayla Bess and Madeline Wood.

Abby Dubois’ 19 points and 10 rebounds led OOB in the win over Boothbay, while Kelsey Custeau hit three 3-pointers in scoring 16; Mackenzie Rague hit eight free throws in also scoring 16 points and Haley Plante also added six points on a pair of 3’s and also dished out nine assists.

That team effort continued a trend that’s been there all season for the Seagulls. Dubois leads the team with 15.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.8 steals a game, while Custeau has been the most most-consistent three-point shooter in averaging 10.3 points a game this season.

Rague is right behind Custeau with 10.1 points a game, while Plante has dished out an average of 5.4 assists per game. Lauralee Small has also chipped in 7.2 points a game, while Julia Fregeau has three times scored in double digits and Peyton Feitz has also provided valuable points off the bench.

The winner will move on to face the winner of the quarterfinal between top-seeded St. Dominic’s and eighth-seeded Dirigo in a semifinal at 4 p.m. Thursday in Augusta.

— Staff Writer Cameron Dunbar can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 323 or [email protected]

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