Optimism reigns supreme in gymnasiums and hockey rinks across the state of Maine Friday night as the winter high school sports season officially gets underway.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” said Winthrop boys’ basketball coach Todd MacArthur, whose team hosts Hall-Dale tonight. “Right now, everyone’s got hopes and dreams for big things.”

“This is when it counts. Heal Points are on the line,” he added. “Everybody should be excited. It’s the real deal.”

Teams will start finding out if they are the real deal or pretenders to the throne. Some will find out more about themselves than others, depending upon the level of competition.

In the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, Winslow hosts Maranacook in a key matchup at 6:30 p.m. Both teams are expected to be among the top teams in the conference and their respective classes (Winslow in Class B, Maranacook in Class C).

“Winslow is a really tough place to play and a tough team to play on opening night,” Maranacook coach Rob Schmidt said. “But you look forward to this night all year and at some point, it’s time to go.”

Winslow features the all-KVAC duo of 6-foot-6 senior forward Justin Martin and 6-foot senior guard Nason Lanphier and will present a stout early-season test for the Black Bears.

“Winslow’s got some huge players back, starting with Martin,” Schmidt said. “He’s just a handful to match up with. And Lanphier is a nice complement. They’re their emotional leaders, guys that really out and make a lot of things happen and I think they’re the key.”

Maranacook, which reached the Western Class C final last year, graduated sharpshooter Taylor Wilbur and other key contributors. But the Black Bears still boast a lot of speed and athleticism and can create the quick tempo Maranacook is known for with Cam Brochu and Kent Mohlar.

“Maranacook’s going to be tough,” said Winslow coach Jared Browne, whose team is coming off a 16-4 season. “They’re really quick. They’re athletic. They scrap. There’s not a whole lot of size, but they get after it.”

Both rosters are replete with players coming off memorable fall seasons. Maranacook’s includes members of its back-to-back Class C state championship soccer team, while Winslow’s is stocked with members of the Class C champion football team.

Yet while the Black Bears were able to make a smooth transition from fall to winter season, Browne had to wait a week before he had a full roster. In fact, the Raiders played their first preseason game before having their first practice together as a full squad. As of last Monday, they’d had as many games as practices (four).

“We really had no preseason,” Browne said. “But our guys are smart. We’ve got eight veteran players back from last year. They’re intelligent players. They’re going to pick stuff up quickly.”

The highlight of the Mountain Valley Conference schedule is the tilt between Winthrop and Hall-Dale at Winthrop High School at 7 p.m.

The rivals played two tight games last year, both won by Winthrop. Both teams have most of their talent back in the fold for this season and are expected to be among the top teams in the MVC.

Winthrop is led by seniors Ben Allen, Dakota Carter, Taylor Morang and Matt Sekerak, who is returning from a season-ending knee injury suffered in the Ramblers’ second meeting with the Bulldogs last year.

A trio of seniors — Brian Allen, Nat Crocker and Wesley Lapointe leads Hall-Dale.

“They’re a veteran team with some nice young talent, similar to us,” MacArthur said. “They’ve got a core of guys with varsity experience. They don’t get flustered at all. They like to move the ball around, inside and outside. It’s kind of contrasting styles. They like to slow the game down a little bit and we like to speed it up a lot.”

The Hall-Dale girls basketball team is one of the few that won’t tip off its season Friday night. Because Winthrop chose not to have a varsity team this year, the Bulldogs will have to wait until next Monday to open their season at home against St. Dom’s.

“I don’t mind,” Hall-Dale coach Brandon Terrill said. “It gives us more time to practice and prepare for when it does start.”

Besides having an additional practice Friday, the Bulldogs will be able to scout their first two opponents, St. Dom’s and Oak Hill, who face each other Friday night.

The local boys ice hockey teams open their seasons Saturday night. Gardiner travels to Portland Ice Arena to face Cape Elizabeth at 6:10 p.m. Cony/Monmouth hosts Massabesic/Bonny Eagle/Old Orchard Beach at the Bank of Maine Ice Vault at 7:40 p.m.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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