FARMINGDALE — Next year is now.

The Hall-Dale girls basketball team hosted a preliminary-round tournament game a season ago with a youth-laden lineup. Head coach Jarod Richmond hoped that extra year of experience would pay off with a big run in the Mountain Valley Conference this season.

That’s not quite the way it’s worked out, at least in terms of a script featuring a strong opening act, some scene-setting in the middle and a big finale just before the final curtain. That epic finish for the Bulldogs could still happen, certainly, by the time the postseason rolls around in February.

But if you’re looking for it now, the Bulldogs — 2-4 heading into Thursday’s MVC game against Carrabec — are entering what might be the most critical stretch of the season.

“When you only play 18 games, they’re all big,” Richmond said. “But this is a crucial stretch for us to prove we could be competitive in this league. Our playoffs started on Jan. 1. We’re working to get ourselves into position for a prelim game.”

Among Hall-Dale’s four losses before the New Year were one to defending regional champion Boothbay, another against current Class C South leader Winthrop and a third to Class B entrant Oak Hill. The loss to the Ramblers stung particularly hard, given the 52-point margin of victory for Winthrop in a game played at the Augusta Civic Center.

That being said, Hall-Dale may have rebounded.

“I like the way we’ve trended after that Winthrop game,” Richmond said. “The Bill Belichick answer is ‘No, we’re not satisfied with where we’re at, because we’re not in the tournament and at the Civic Center. And even then, we’re not going to be happy until we’re making runs and we get Hall-Dale girls basketball back on the map.’

“But are we happy with where we’re at? No. Are we happy with where we’re trending? Yes.”

If you’re looking for an example of how Hall-Dale thought its 2019-20 season would play out, you only needed look cross-court Thursday night. Carrabec came into the game sitting third in the regional Heal point standings, winner of three of its first five games of the season.

Best among those early defining victories?

A win over heated rival Madison on the road and an 11-point victory at home against Mountain Valley. For a Cobras squad that started as many as four freshmen at a time last winter, it’s the type of improvement head coach Skip Rugh was looking for after making a playoff appearance 11 months ago.

“Everybody knows what to expect now,” Rugh said. “We’re more of a team now. Everybody knows their roles, and it’s going pretty well. They learned that this is going to be tough, not only physically but mentally, too.”

He’s taking no stock in seeing a “No. 3” next to Carrabec in the regional standings, however. Not with 12 games to play this month alone, a full two weeks off between Dec. 19 and the game at Hall-Dale, and five games in a nine-day stretch.

Like Richmond, Rugh believes the first few weeks of January constitute one of the most, if not the most, crucial stretch of the entire season.

“After we get done this stretch we can talk about (the standings), but it’s still almost a game every other night for us. It’s a grind. That’s what we’ve been preaching all along — taking care of yourself, staying hydrated, that stuff is all important. This is going to be a real grind.”

The two squads differ in one interesting capacity.

Where Carrabec hasn’t wilted against some of the MVC’s perennial powers (the Cobras lost by just two at Monmouth on opening night in December and by two at home to Boothbay a week later), Hall-Dale is searching for leadership.

The graduations of Grace Begin, Olivia Bourque and Emily Allen left a void in the locker room the Bulldogs are trying to fill. One way to fill that comes not from talent, but to commitment to the defensive side of the basketball.

What Richmond has seen following that distasteful Winthrop defeat on Dec. 27 suggests leadership is coming, and the Bulldogs are back to looking at what they do best by defending better in 2020.

Count Carrabec in when it comes to emphasizing defense and rebounding.

Can both of these teams take what they learned last winter and translate to a better winter this time around?

We’ll soon find out.

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