Winthrop High School coach Todd MacArthur knew who most of the contenders were going to be in the Mountain Valley Conference this season.

He just didn’t know which was going to be the strongest.

“I think it’s going to be incredibly competitive,” MacArthur said before the season. “The parity is crazy. I don’t know if I’ve seen this in a while.”

So far, the season has proven exactly that. Roughly two-thirds of the regular season is gone, and good luck trying to pick the favorite in the conference. Hall-Dale sits on top at 12-1, with conference newcomer Richmond right behind at 11-2, followed in Heal points by Dirigo (10-4), Spruce Mountain (10-2) and Winthrop (10-2).

“It’s tremendous. Every night, there’s not a team out there that’s going to dominate the league,” MacArthur said Tuesday. “Hall-Dale’s probably the best team, but I think that everybody else is right there. … It comes down to who is improving the most and who’s playing their best basketball at the right time.”

A look at the teams’ head-to-head records provides more detail about the parity between the teams. Hall-Dale was the conference’s lone undefeated team until a loss this past weekend to Dirigo, which also handed Winthrop its first loss this season. Dirigo, however, has losses to Boothbay and Richmond on its slate, and one of Richmond’s two losses this year came to Winthrop. Winthrop lost to Hall-Dale, which beat Spruce Mountain, which beat Dirigo and Richmond, which…

You get the picture. Anyone, on any night, can beat anyone.

“As a coach, it’s kind of nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time,” MacArthur said. “I think you go into every game uncertain, in terms of (knowing) it’s going to be a battle. There are no gimmies anymore.”

It’s stressful, with many nights providing an early playoff feel, but according to those coaching in the games, that’s the atmosphere they long for.

“(There’s) a handful of teams that can win against any opponent on any given night. That’s a fun mix to be a part of,” Hall-Dale coach Chris Ranslow said. “(It’s) an opportunity for kids to really execute and show their skills and showcase their talent in a really tight basketball game in packed gyms in Central Maine. … And from a selfish standpoint, it’s fun to coach in close games. I love it.”

It’s more fun, and it can be more productive for a team trying to hone its form for the playoff grind.

“We want to be the best team that we can be by the time tournament comes around,” said MacArthur, whose Ramblers have two matchups with Spruce Mountain and one with Richmond included in their final six games. “We end our season with a brutal schedule, and when I say ‘brutal,’ I love it that way. I don’t get worried about that. Even if there are some hiccups, I think you want to play your best competition at the end.”

• • •

For the first time this year, Hall-Dale had to try to shake off a loss.

The Bulldogs dropped their first game Saturday, falling to Dirigo on the road, 52-51.

“From the macro level, we weren’t looking to go undefeated, necessarily. It wasn’t our primary goal,” said coach Chris Ranslow, whose team still sits atop Class C South at 12-1. “In the end, we’re just preparing ourselves for a good tournament run in February. … You don’t want to learn how to lose, but you don’t want your first loss to come in the playoffs, so it’ll be interesting to see how we respond (today) down in Richmond.”

Ranslow said the team had moments to jump in front late but couldn’t make that leap against a strong Cougars team.

“We had a couple of opportunities late that we didn’t capitalize on,” Ranslow said. “They’re a good group. They return most, if not all, of their starters from last year, they were 9-4, so they’re a battle-tested club. There was a lot riding on it, it’s a new space for our group to kind of be the hunted versus one of the hunters.”

The challenges don’t stop. The Bulldogs face a Bobcats team Wednesday that has soared to the top of the Class C South standings. “I’ve seen them play a couple of times, I’m excited about the talent that they have, especially at the top of their roster,” Ranslow said. “They seem to be really, really disciplined, they seem to trap, and they like to get out and they like to be physical. They like to bring their brand of basketball.”

• • •

Even with a 4-8 record, Erskine is still alive and well in its playoff pursuit. The Eagles are sixth in Class A North, thanks to big victories over Cony (7-5), Skowhegan (9-4) and Medomak Valley (7-4).

“I know that this is a marathon, and we’re a little over halfway through,” coach Tim Bonsant said. “We’re going to have to win a few more games to make sure we secure our spot in the playoffs. We’re going to take it one game at a time.”

Erskine has stayed competitive despite the loss for the season of standout center Noah Bonsant, and Coach Bonsant said the team is still looking for ways to make up his production.

“We’re still adjusting,” he said. “But I’ve had some kids step up, which has been really nice. The league is tough. We’ve been in just about every game, and could have won a few more. We just need to finish at the end of the game. We have to make free throws and we’ve got to make a stop.”

Coach Bonsant said it has been a team effort to replace the injured senior. Braden Soule has moved from shooting guard to point guard, where he’s averaging nearly 14 points and six assists per game. Jack Jowett (just under 16 points per game) has been the leading scorer, and Gavin Blanchard, who’s averaging nearly 10 rebounds per game, and 6-foot-3 Jacob Praul have picked up much of the slack on the boards.

The flaw, however, has been shooting, which has gone cold and cost an Eagles team that has dropped seven of its last nine games.

“We’re shooting around 20 percent, 21 percent from the field,” he said. “We’re taking good shots. My kids just need to have more confidence.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM