Portland, Deering, Cheverus and Windham high schools have moved. Now they’re located in the North of Maine.

At least that’s what the state’s new five-class basketball system says.

The four SMAA schools are now in Class AA North along with former Eastern Maine schools Bangor, Oxford Hills, Edward Little and Lewiston.

“Our proposal was to call our conference the Big 8,” Portland boys’ coach Joe Russo said. “We’ve got eight awesome teams in this conference.”

But, a good chunk of Portland’s schedule is against teams from Class AA South. Which used to be called Western A.

“My gut reaction is that it just sounds weird to say Portland is in the North division,” senior forward/center Ben Griffin said. “In terms of it overall, I’m not sure how good this change will be. I didn’t see any problems with the old system.”

Russo was overseeing a packed tryout session at Portland High on the first day of practice for Maine high school basketball teams. Russo is starting his 25th season as the Bulldogs’ head coach. Trips to Oxford Hills and Lewiston are in a four-game season-opening stretch that includes games with familiar foes South Portland and Bonny Eagle.

The new teams on the schedule will create some extra work – “I’ve got to find time to scout Bangor,” Russo said – and likely create more unknowns during a game.

“After awhile you kind of know the other coaches, you can anticipate what they’ll do in certain situations,” Russo said. “Now we’ll be adapting to the coaches and team styles we’re not as familiar with.”

Russo wishes he had more games against his new opponents.

“My thinking is, if we’re going to do this then we should be playing home-and-away with the other teams in the (North) and then pick up four games from our old league,” Russo said.

The five-class alignment was approved in April in a vote of the Maine Principals Association’s general membership. It was done in large part to give northern teams dealing with declining enrollment more competitive balance.

The new AA division is for schools with 824 students or more (Cheverus and McAuley petitioned to be in AA). Enrollment figures for the other classes are 545-823 for Class A, 325-544 for Class B, 131-324 for Class C, and 130 or fewer for Class D.

The realignment has created some odd configurations.

Class A South has teams from three conferences that last season competed in the Eastern A (Brunswick, Mt. Ararat), Western A (Marshwood, Biddeford, Westbrook) and Western B (six Western Maine Conference teams plus Morse and Leavitt) tournaments.

“I think in Southern A you have some really established, quality coaches. That’s what jumps out at me about that league,” Russo said.

Interestingly, both the boys’ and girls’ defending Class A champions will still be in Class A – the loaded Hampden Academy boys’ team, which has won five straight Eastern A titles and the Lawrence girls’ team featuring 2015 Gatorade Maine Player of the Year Nia Irving.

“Are we going to find the best so-called Class A team?” Portland girls’ basketball coach Jay Lowery said. “Now, I’m not sure we will.”

The season will present new challenges, junior guard/forward Kate Johnson said.

“It’s new competition and new teams to visit us at the Expo,” she said. “There’s always a little challenge and apprehension when you’re going against a team you know nothing about. Of course, sometimes going in blind can be a good thing. You don’t end up hyping yourself up too much, worrying about a certain player or team.”

Amir Moss, a returning starter at guard for the Portland boys’ team, said he’s “looking forward to playing new teams that we haven’t played before.”

Griffin acknowledged that rivalries can be created quickly and that he could “see changes in the air,” in recent years when teams like Falmouth would play a Class B regular-season schedule but end up in Class A for the tournament.

There is one aspect of the realignment that does rankle Moss a bit: Portland’s regional tournament games will be at the Augusta Civic Center, not the home-based Expo and Cross Insurance Arena.

“I love playing at our Civic Center. I feel it’s better,” Moss said. “Plus, I’ve never lost there.”

 


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