The sun wasn’t up yet and the snow flurries that began the night before were still falling. But the players on the Gardiner boys hockey team were hard at work.

They had to be. Ice time at local arenas is hard to come by, so at 5:15 in the morning, the Tigers were getting the first day of the winter sports season started before it even began.

“These seniors have been doing it for four years, the juniors have been doing it for three, and they’re adjusted to it,” coach Sam Moore said. “They’re ready to go. Most of them just want to play hockey, and you tell them what time to be there, and they’ll be there.”

Monday was the first day for nearly all winter sports in the state to officially begin practicing, and nobody got an earlier jump than the Tigers, who began their efforts to emulate last year’s Class B South regional final appearance in the pre-dawn hours at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault. Early as it was, however, and early as it will be on Mondays the rest of the way, Moore didn’t see a groggy bunch rubbing their eyes for the first skate of the season.

“I had no one late getting on the ice. They were all ready by 10 after (five), standing at the door, waiting for me to finish lacing up my skates,” he said. “We take that morning slot, and I like it because all my kids are hungry.”

Whether they, too, faced early hours or normal afternoon sessions, the state’s other hockey programs got their seasons started with drills, training techniques and team-building exercises.

“These first couple of days it’s conditioning, getting these guys back in shape,” said Waterville boys coach Dennis Martin, whose team practices at Colby College. “Seeing who wants to work and who doesn’t. … We always do some type of full-flow drill with passing and shooting, and then some conditioning here and there. Every drill we do, it’s all up-tempo or we’re doing some type of conditioning in everything we do.”

There’s a little more buzz to the practices when it means returning to a team coming off of a successful season. There’s no better example than the Panthers, who won the Class B championship last season and, with all but two of last year’s starters back, figure to be a title contender again.

“Yes, and it also puts a big bull’s eye on your back, too,” Martin said. “We’ve got to work for it and come every day. Nothing’s given to you.”

That wasn’t the case on the ice alone. Basketball players hit the hardwood, and wrestlers, swimmers and runners began the first steps leading hopefully to success at the mat, the pool and the track in the months to come.

This early, it’s all about mastering the basics and making sure the athletes are ready for the course of the upcoming season.

“The kids know for the next few weeks it’s basically going to be conditioning, stroke technique and a few tweaks here and there to make sure their strokes are good and can carry them through the season,” said Gardiner/Hall-Dale swimming coach Rob Pekins, whose team is one of three along with Erskine and Cony to be based at the Kennebec Valley YMCA. “It all depends on the level of swimmers you get. I ended up with a huge handful of new kids today, and they picked up on the stuff I was teaching them pretty quick.”

Basketball teams face a similar fundamental approach, one that gives the coaches a sense for the kind of team they’ll have once the games roll around.

“Usually the first days are tryouts, so we’re really not going to get into the meat of the Xs and Os until probably after two or three days,” Lawrence girls basketball coach John Donato said. “It’s mostly conditioning and skills. It’s working on skills, (you) find out who will be the 12 best players in your program and go with that.”

The sessions are also beneficial for the players. For teams like Lawrence, which lost Nia Irving and her 25.8 points and 21 rebounds per game to Boston University, the role of go-to player is open, and making the right impression out of the gate is key.

“Every position and every spot, everything on the team from the starter to who makes the team, is all up for grabs,” Donato said. “This is going to be exciting. The kids who put the time into offseason work will show that it’s been worth it. … It’s exciting for them and exciting for me.”

Some sports started — or will start — on different dates. Girls hockey teams were able to begin practicing Nov. 7, while ski teams will begin next Monday.

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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