The trendiest picks to emerge from Class B North this season hail from well north of Bangor — Presque Isle and Houlton.

But there might be a sleeper in central Maine, a team that is equal parts brand new and traditionally strong. The Kennebec RiverHawks, the Waterville-Winslow cooperative effort, waded through their first season as a new program last winter and appear poised to take the next step toward a deep postseason run.

It could end up as either another state championship for Waterville and Winslow, or the first for the RiverHawks, depending on one’s perspective.

“Overall, we’re pretty deep and pretty skilled, and I think we do have all the aspects of what we need to do to be successful,” Kennebec coach Jon Hart said. “I ask a lot of my kids, and so far they’re meeting my expectations easily.”

While building chemistry last season was an important building block, adding several new pieces this winter might be more significant.

Senior Tom Tibbetts will play a whole season this year after missing most of the first half in 2017-18. Senior goalie Ben Grenier — a standout with Winslow two years ago who did not play last season — will start in net. Junior Zach Menoudarakos is back in Waterville after a year at Kents Hill School, and Cody Ivey, who concentrated on travel hockey last season, is also out for the high school team.

Throw those players in with some of the standouts from last year’s team, like Cooper Hart and John Evans, and suddenly the RiverHawks have the makings of a solid club from top to bottom.

“Last year, they were a little unsure about how this was going to go, and rightfully so,” Jon Hart said. “We couldn’t be happier with the way things are going right now. Now that it’s Year 2, it’s less of a mystery. It’s, ‘Let’s just go get it.’

“The funny thing is that the line that’s working the best for us right now (Tibbetts centering Hart and Menoudarakos) is a line that has a new player on it — a Waterville, a Winslow and a Waterville, with one who didn’t even play last year. They’re not afraid to move the puck together.”

There is optimism, too, at Messalonskee, although it isn’t ready to challenge for a regional championship yet. But after finishing last season with eight healthy players, there are now 20 in the program thanks to the influx of a large freshman class.

Third-year head coach Kevin Castner is excited — but not because of wild expectations. He’s simply thrilled he can field a full team, that injuries or illness won’t lead to forfeiting games, and that practices can now include drills designed for more than two or three players at a time.

“It’s a lot different than last year,” Castner said. “We’re still young. We’ve got to pick our battles, and we’ll just see how the season goes. But this is a great group of kids who are excited to get the season going. They want to put the work in.”

In Class B South, the same type of optimism is harder to come by.

It’s still a world ruled by the Cape Elizabeths, the Greelys, the Yorks and the Yarmouths.

Even much-improved Gardiner, which won just three games last season, may have to be judged differently. Even its crossover games against the likes of Class A teams Bangor, Cony and Gorham present challenges for a group looking to turn boatloads of ice time for freshmen and sophomores a year ago into experience that can win games this time around.

“B South is brutal. Being put up against Yarmouth, York, Cape Elizabeth — those teams are heavy hitters that have a deep pool of talent they can pull from,” new coach Tyler Wing said. “We’re a small school and only pull from a few small towns. We don’t have that deep pool — but we do have the talent coming out right now for high school hockey.”

Already, the Tigers have circled a tough January stretch, when they will ply four games in eight days.

During that gauntlet, they’ll play at Yarmouth, at Greely, at Bangor and then host the Kennebec RiverHawks.

“That four-game run could be the turning point for us,” Wing said. “Either we turn it on or hit a wall, but hopefully we’ll be able to climb that wall if we do. The boys are willing to work and want to work hard, but those games will be a test of them being able to get mentally ready against some of the top teams.”

Maranacook/Winthrop/Madison/Spruce Mountain will face the same challenge, though it’s younger than Gardiner and locked in the same top-heavy league.

One bonus for the Hawks is that they’ve seen two consecutive big freshmen classes enter the program, and there’s another one on the way.

Head coach Jack Rioux remains steadfast in his assertion that improvement goes well beyond wins and losses. He does, however, notice the scores.

“Obviously, I’d love to say we could be in the playoffs, but we’re going to try and be in every game. We don’t want to get blown out,” Rioux said. “Our goal, generally, is to improve over last year. We’re not going to say that our goal is to win five games, but it’s just to play the best game we can with the players that we have. Every game is a new slate, and we’ll play the best that we can.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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