It likely won’t take opposing teams long to figure out that the Kennebec RiverHawks aren’t just some outfit of castoffs from small schools looking to offer varsity hockey.

The RiverHawks combined two-time defending Class B state champion Waterville and cross-river rival Winslow for a new entry in Class B North that should be in contention for the regional title in their first season.

Just don’t try telling that to their first-year coach.

“That’s always the hope,” said Jon Hart, who graduated from Waterville in 2007. “But all I can say is that we’re taking it one game at a time, one shift at a time. I want us to learn to work hard and worry about the rest of it later.”

Kennebec had 30 kids try out for a hockey program that, divided out to its original communities, was otherwise in trouble. Waterville graduated eight players from its 17-player roster last season, while Winslow had only 13 on a last-place team. Combined, though, they have championship-caliber players and a deep talent pool by Class B standards.

Senior Cody Pellerin anchored Waterville’s second line last season, and returns from a 10-goal, 32-point campaign, while classmate Chase Wheeler was a regular blue line contributor often overshadowed by the three seniors the Purple Panthers’ defensive corps.

Sprinkle in the likes of Nick West, Logan Denis and Kyle Gurney from the Winslow side, and suddenly the RiverHawks are deep.

“I’ve said it from Day 1, it’s ‘character,'” Hart said. “The Kennebec RiverHawks are going to be hard-working, well-coached, respectful. We need to have an identity that we’re going to be able to play hard and grind out games. That’s all it is. We want to get to a point where we feel like as a team we can trust each other, trust our coaching, trust our skills and play hard.”

Old Town/Orono, which took Waterville to overtime in the regional final a year ago, should push Kennebec this season, too. Brewer and Hampden will find themselves knocking on the door if either the RiverHawks or Coyotes falter.

For Messalonskee, just two seasons removed from back-to-back Class B championships, it’s a different story. The Eagles open the season with only nine skaters and two goalies, hit especially hard by offseason defections to other sports, other schools and ineligibility.

Second-year coach Kevin Castner said he explored the opportunity to play a junior varsity schedule instead of a varsity one while waiting for program numbers to rebound next year, but it was too late.

“The fortunate thing is that we have a great group of kids with a great mentality,” Castner said. “We’ve got really good character. We set our goal as going out and playing as hard as you can for that 45 minutes of the game. At end of game, if you’ve given everything you can and left everything on the ice, then that’s how we’re going to get better.”

Reigning Class B South regional champion Gardiner was also hit by graduation and program defections, but the Tigers have healthy numbers yet again and a group of players who logged significant minutes a year ago.

They may be young in spots, but a tough cross-over schedule that features Class A iron like Lewiston, Bangor and Cony will sharpen the Tigers quickly.

“I think it will be really hard to get there, and it’s going to take a lot of work,” Gardiner coach Sam Moore said. “These guys seem hungry in practice, and I think we’ll see them get better throughout the year.”

The bulk of Gardiner’s experience returns on the blue line with Sloan Berthiaume and Connor Manter, both seniors, and Quinn Veregge is a sophomore goaltender tasked with replacing four-year starter Michael Poirier.

York, which lost only twice in the regular season last winter (both to Gardiner), should be an early B South frontrunner after winning the regional championship, along with Greely and Yarmouth.

Maranacook/Winthrop has added Madison to its co-op, and the Hawks have 20 players on the team this season. That doesn’t mean they will jump right into contention at the top of the league, though, not with 15 underclassmen.

Still, first-year coach Jack Rioux is excited that the building blocks for the future — promised on the horizon for the last couple of seasons — have begun to arrive.

“The chances of us making the playoffs, realistically, our schedule is too tough to make the playoffs,” Rioux said. “It’s really all about getting these young players good, quality, varsity ice time.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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