Valley boys’ basketball coach Mike Staples, center, celebrates along with fans and players as the clock runs out during the Class D South final against St. Dominic on Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUGUSTA — Seat 17 of row H in Section 17 at the Augusta Civic Center stands out, a yellow beacon in a blue sea. The seat is yellow in honor of the late Ed Coffin, the man who sat in it the most.

Until his death in 2021 at the age of 89, Coffin was as much a part of the high school basketball tournament at the Civic Center anybody. Players and teams came and went, but Coffin was constant.

That’s why, the day before the start of the 2019 tournament, the Civic Center honored Coffin with this yellow seat. It’s where he watched generations of games unfold. Coffin chose this seat because of its location at the end of the court and above the rim, where he could watch everything unfold.

Ed Coffin was a basketball aficionado. That’s one of the things that kept him coming back to the tournament, year after year. Coffin also knew that sometimes you have to reach behind the obvious to get to the truth, and the truth about the Maine high school basketball tournament is this: Class D  is where you’ll find the soul of the tournament.

With a day off, Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens watched the Class D South finals Saturday from a seat just down the row from Coffin’s. Stevens grew up in Lincoln and graduated from Mattanawcook Academy. The small schools tournament is one of the things he loves about his youth.

“For me, the center of vacation week was the Bangor Auditorium,” Stevens said. “I remember watching Jonesport-Beals play. That was a team I would get excited following.”


The tournament is the one chance the smallest schools have each season to take the biggest stage. In the Augusta Civic Center, the Class D South field has the best of the four tournament venues. It has the intimacy of the Portland Expo without the claustrophobia. You’re on top of the action, and you have room to move if you need to. Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center, which replaced the outdated Bangor Auditorium in 2013, is the newest arena in the state and has the finest fan amenities, but parts of it feel cold. Barely a decade old, the building is still developing its identity. It does get loud, though.

Cross Insurance Arena in Portland may have been nice in 1977 when it opened, but we’ve evolved, and it’s never been ideal for basketball. Class D schools should feel fortunate they never play their tournament there.

On Saturday afternoon, the Augusta Civic Center was nowhere close to reaching its capacity of around 5,000. It didn’t matter. Fans are passionate everywhere, but in the smallest communities, basketball is an event, not just another option.

Put it this way: If the same percentage of Portland residents (population just over 68,000) came out for Portland High’s Class AA final at Cross arena as Bingham residents (population 866) who made the trip from northern Somerset County to watch the two Valley games, many would’ve been turned away.

Saturday afternoon, fans decked out in Valley blue filled sections 10 and 11 of the Augusta Civic Center, behind the Cavaliers bench and the scorers table. There’s somebody who drew the short straw and had to stay behind in Bingham to mind the store.

“Our Valley fans have always been great. Both teams are rising, and that’s what it takes. You can’t put a poor product out and expect everyone to show up all the time,” Valley girls’ basketball coach Gordon Hartwell said after his team’s 71-26 win over Waynflete.


Stevens noted a few fans in Forest Hills black and orange cheering for Valley.

“With the small schools, the rival schools will support each other. I remember Fort Fairfield would get knocked out, and they’d be cheering for Hodgdon,” Stevens said.

Fans of Class D also, for the most part, were treated to less plodding basketball. In Class AA girls’ semifinals this week, the winning team averaged 48 points. In Class D, the semifinal-winning teams averaged 53.5 points, the highest of the five classes. On the boys’ side, only Class C teams (62.8 points) averaged a higher winning score than Class D’s 61.5, although Class AA (60) and A (59.3) weren’t far off.

“When the basketball moves, fans like it. It’s the best kind of basketball. I don’t want a 20-19 game. I don’t think that’s very entertaining for a fan or as a coach. I’d die over that. I want to run,” Hartwell said.

That’s what Ed Coffin understood all those years while sitting in seat 17 of Row H in Section 17. Smaller isn’t worse. It’s just smaller. Except this week, every year, when it blooms.

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