WINTHROP — It’s one thing to lift a rebuilding high school basketball program to respectability. It’s more difficult to take it the next step from respectability to contender.

Some programs find the next rung up the ladder impossible to scale. Becoming a championship-caliber team requires much more than just time and effort.

That is the challenge before coach Todd MacArthur and the Winthrop Ramblers as they opened the season Monday, along with winter sports teams across the state, for the first official day of practice.

The Ramblers improved from 3-15 in MacArthur’s first year at the helm to 11-8 and a spot in the Western C tournament in 2013. Last year, the Ramblers topped that with 14-5 record and earned a bye to the Augusta Civic Center. The season ended with a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Maranacook.

They return all of their starters after graduating two senior role players from last year. A strong senior nucleus bolstered by some talented underclassmen with a year of varsity competition under their belt has Winthrop dreaming of a run at a state title, which it last won in 2008.

“I think these guys are ready to come into the season with the mindset that we’ve got to get better,” MacArthur said. “We’ve still got some work to do. I think these guys are looking forward to getting better, because if they do get better, then we can compete with the top teams.”

“It’s really exciting to get into it. I’ve been looking forward to it for awhile,” senior guard Taylor Morang said.

The regular season for basketball, indoor track, swimming and boys ice hockey begins Dec. 5.

As MacArthur’s team warmed up on the sideline in preparation for its debut, the girls team was wrapping up its first practice on the court. Coach Joe Burnham’s Ramblers enter the season with much different goals than their male classmates.

In September, Winthrop decided not to field a varsity team for the 2014-15 season. The girls will play a junior varsity schedule instead.

“We only have nine girls, six sophomores and three freshmen,” Burnham said. “It’s a really young team and we felt that that level would suit the team better.”

The Ramblers finished 0-18 last year and graduated a number of seniors. Since most of the remaining players didn’t start playing basketball until the seventh grade, Burnham felt asking them to compete against older, more experienced teams at the varsity level wasn’t realistic or in the long-term best interest of the program.

The Ramblers won’t be playing a typical Mountain Valley Conference schedule. Including preseason, Burnham has put together a 25-game slate — and would welcome more games — in hopes of giving the team more experience and laying a solid foundation for next year, when a large group of eighth graders could give the program a boost.

“The girls we have put in a lot of work over the summer. They got in more basketball over the summer than we did the last two summers,” Burnham said.

“I think we need to build some confidence,” he said. “A lot of these girls were wide-eyed freshmen last year going up against bigger, stronger, more experienced girls. We’re trying to put them into leadership roles and get them to buy into what their part in the program is going to be.”

Burnham said MacArthur’s work rejuvenating the boys program serves as an inspiration for his rebuilding efforts.

MacArthur is pleased with how far his team has come in four years, but last season “left a good taste and a bad taste in our mouth.”

The injury bug bit the Ramblers last year and may have brought a premature end to their season. Senior forward Matt Sekerak suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and two torn menisci, taking away the Ramblers’ top defender and second-leading scorer late in the season.

Sekerak said his knee emerged from surgery and rehab stronger than ever. After spending a season as an all-conference goalkeeper on the soccer team, he expects to contribute as he did before the injury.

“It’s big to have confidence moving laterally after soccer season,” Sekerak said.

“Having Matt back is good,” Morang said. “We missed him last year.”

The Ramblers also return big men Ben Allen, Dakota Carter and Anthony Owens, as well as guard Jacob Hickey, who led the team in scoring as a freshman.

With all of that talent back, Winthrop could challenge defending Mountain Valley Conference champion Dirigo and Boothbay.

Should opponents have Winthrop circled on their schedule?

“Yeah. I think they should,” Morang said.

Winthrop has less than three weeks to prepare for its season-opener against Hall-Dale. But on Monday that game seemed a long ways away.

“Every preseason everyone is a little rusty. It takes a little bit to get back into it,” Sekerak said. “We’re here to put in the work and get better.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter; @RAWmaterial33

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.