The Mountain Valley Conference was an open race last season. One of its coaches doesn’t expect much to change this time around.

“I think this league is good. I think it could be just as good as it was last year,” Oak Hill’s Chad Stowell said. “I don’t think a lot of teams got a lot worse than they were last year.”

Indeed, the MVC turned out the No. 1 seed in Class B South in Bridgeway, a C South champion in Lisbon and another C South finalist in Monmouth, and that’s not counting Hall-Dale, which won the conference, and Winthrop, which was the second seed in last year’s C South tournament.

Hall-Dale goes into this season as a favorite — if not the favorite — in the conference. All of last year’s team is back, most notably Akira Warren, who was the most feared bat in the lineup as a freshman, and Austin Stebbins, who was an MVC All-Star in center field.

The team also returns its pitching staff intact, with Dean Jackman and Cole Lockhart serving both as the Bulldogs’ No. 1 and 2 pitchers and the team’s top leadership voices.

“Our outlook is very positive,” coach Bob Sinclair said. “This year’s team has depth at every position. … The team will be explosive, looking to use its speed and power to generate runs.”

Winthrop should be a competitive team again. The Ramblers have a solid rotation led by Greg Fay, Ryan Baird and Cameron Hachey, while center fielder Jackson Ladd and utility man Cameron Gaghan were among the team’s top hitters last year.

“Our expectations are always pretty much the same,” coach Marc Fortin said. “We always assume we’re going to be in the playoffs, it’s a rarity when we’re not.”

Winthrop’s new players could add something to the mix. Some of the school’s best athletes, including Cam Wood from basketball and Morgan Bellemare from football, joined up this season.

“I’ve already had a couple of coaches come into the gym and say ‘You’ve got to win something with these athletes,’ ” Fortin said.

Bridgeway, the combined Madison-Carrabec team, took a blow when longtime coach Scott Franzose stepped down barely a week into the preseason. Franzose cited “personal reasons as well as outside influences” as the factors in his decision.

“It was a tough decision and I will miss the kids and the game dearly,” Franzose said.

Madison athletic director Chris LeBlanc said Jeff Bess will coach the Bandits on an interim basis this season. Bess inherits a team that won 13 games before being knocked out of the Class B South playoffs by eventual state champion Yarmouth. This season, Bridgeway is back in Class C South with many of its rivals from the Mountain Valley Conference.

Despite the loss of all-MVC player Dustin Crawford, Bridgeway returns a strong group. Evan Holzworth could be among the league’s top pitchers. Evan Bess, Sean Whalen and Dylan Willette also will pitch, along with Eric Wescott. Zach Belanger and Cavan Weggler bring speed to the outfield.

With low numbers and one of the conference’s best in Hunter Richardson no longer around, Monmouth Academy would seem to be a candidate for a down year. Coach Eric Palleschi, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m sure there are teams looking at us saying we’ll be down,” he said. “I think we’ll surprise a couple of teams. I don’t think we’ll surprise ourselves, because we have high expectations every year.”

Monmouth has an excellent center fielder in Avery Pomerleau and big bats in the lineup with Nick Dovinsky, Bradley Neal and Trevor Flanagan. Still, Palleschi acknowledges that the margin for error is lower.

“We’re going to have to be sound defensively. We can’t kick the ball around,” he said. “We’re going to have to be efficient with what we have.”

Last season was a tough one for Oak Hill, which slumped to a 4-12 record, but Stowell said having to play so many young, inexperienced players last year will pay off this spring.

“We had stretches, even in those losses, where we were in games, and I just don’t think we had the experience to execute those situations,” he said. “I think we’re going to win games this year by (avoiding) the mistakes that were made last year. These kids took a lot of lumps, and I think they’re going to understand the situations a little bit better.”

Reid Cote projects as the team’s top pitcher, while Colby Webster is back after leading off last season.

“I think we’re a balanced team,” Stowell said. “I don’t think we’re at the point now where we have any dominant department.”

Mt. Abram hasn’t won a game since the 2015 season, but new coach Jeff Pillsbury was encouraged by what he saw from a group of young players in the preseason.

“I like my youth, and the older kids are working hard,” Pillsbury said.

Seniors Sam Storer, Bryce Werzanski, and Cody Ladd will lead the Roadrunners. Senior Evan McKay, who missed last season with an injury, will contribute in the outfield.

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