WATERVILLE — It’s been less than 55 hours since Seth Bussell raised his arms with his teammates, hoisting a Gold Ball into the frosty Orono air after winning the Class C state football championship Friday night, but the Maine Central Institute junior drags himself out of bed in the darkness.

It’s 3 a.m., on a day when school isn’t even in session. Bussell isn’t fazed at all.

“I don’t mind it. I’m kind of an (early riser) most of the time,” Bussell said.

Monday was the official start of winter sports practices across Maine — save for girls hockey, which started earlier — but some of the area’s boys hockey teams get an earlier start than most. The Lawrence/Skowhegan/MCI boys hockey co-op was on the ice at Colby College’s Alfond Rink at 5 a.m. sharp, followed by Messalonskee at 6:10. A few miles down the interstate, the Gardiner Tigers skated through their first practice of the year at 5:30 a.m. inside the Camden National Bank Ice Vault.

While basketball, wrestling and indoor track teams wait until school is out for the day, beginning their training in the afternoon and evening hours, that luxury doesn’t always exist for hockey teams in search of precious ice availability.

“I like it,” Lawrence/Skowhegan/MCI coach Dakota Gendreau said of the early mornings. “It’s nice for the kids to be able to wake up and get all their extracurricular out of the way. Then they can go to school, focus on their school work, focus on their after-school jobs. It allows them a lot more freedom this way.”

Stories of drives to chilly rinks under the cover of early morning darkness are part of the hockey culture, particularly at the youth levels, though Gendreau believes that is changing.

“It is part of the culture. It’s becoming less so, but it’s still an important part of it,” Gendreau said. “A lot of people like getting up at this time, and there’s some teams that for tournaments will get up and play games at 6 a.m.”

Not everybody loves the early mornings.

Messalonskee coach Kevin Castner, noting that many schools have begun investigating the benefits to students of later start times to the academic day, thinks morning practices aren’t the most effective. The Eagles’ schedule calls for practices twice a week in the morning at Colby and once at night at Kents Hill School’s Bonnefond Ice Arena, just as it did last season.

“I prefer late night practices, because I feel the kids are more engaged,” Castner said. “Morning time is hard for younger kids. Their attention spans are not quite there that early in the morning.

“As adults, you’ve got to remember, we’ve had this experience where we have to get up early. For them, being up this early, their minds aren’t functioning as well. That’s why school starts a little bit later in the day.”

For Bussell, one of three MCI players on the Lawrence/Skowhegan/MCI team, he doesn’t care when he gets to practice. This is his first year playing organized hockey of any kind, something he was eager to do once MCI athletic director Jim Leonard first mentioned the possibility of the Huskies participating in a co-op.

MCI did not have a team last winter.

“This is the first year I’ve ever gotten to play, other than with my brothers on the pond and stuff,” Bussell said. “I talked to our AD, and he got it going for us. I was like, ‘Sweet!’ We never had the opportunity to play before.”

If 5 a.m. for practice seems a tad on the early side, consider this: Bussell lives in Athens, nearly 20 miles northwest of the MCI campus and almost 30 miles north of Waterville.

There’s dedication, and then there’s the kind of dedication that willfully accepts a blaring alarm clock at a time of night that is only a few hours after many high school kids have even gone to bed.

“A lot of them were already prepared to come in at this time,” Gendreau said of his team. “A lot of them get up nice and early, anyway. A lot of them were actually content with this. They were happy about (5 a.m.).”

Bussell is joined by his younger brother Isaac, a sophomore, on the team. Both Bussell brothers can skate, which Gendreau said makes coaching a player with no hockey experience to speak of easier. The older Bussell, despite smashing his way to 56-yard performance out of the MCI backfield as a fullback for the football team Friday night, said he emerged from the fall season without anything other than a few minor bruises.

Four Skowhegan players — all football players who played in the Class B state title game Saturday night — were given Monday off as they recovered from that effort.

MCI has no school this week, and Bussell had plans for the hours immediately following practice. But if you were thinking he was looking for a nap, you’d be mistaken.

“I’m going hunting,” Bussell said with a chuckle.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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