They play in different classes, they come from different conferences. But when the Winthrop and Gardiner boys basketball teams met Wednesday night, it wasn’t exactly a showdown between strangers.

The players grew up playing each other. They go against each other each summer. And according to the coaches for both teams, that familiarity adds some flavor to the matchup.

“Whenever you play a team within a 15-minute radius, there’s a lot of similarity,” said Winthrop’s Todd MacArthur, whose team earned a 65-43 victory. “A lot of youth programs, you stay within a geographical area, so we get the opportunity now to see those kids four years removed from travel leagues. It’s kind of a cool, little twist.”

“I think it adds a little pride,” Gardiner’s Aaron Toman said. “Certainly this year, with the postseason not guaranteed, I think that adds a little pride, playing against opponents you’re a little more familiar with and playing against your neighbors.”

The Ramblers (1-2) were led by Noah Grube’s 16 points and seven rebounds, with Noah Dunn adding 13 and Logan Baird chipping in 12. Gardiner (0-2) was led by 13 points from Kalvin Catchings.

This game normally wouldn’t happen, with Gardiner being a Class A Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference team and Winthrop being a Class C squad playing in the Mountain Valley Conference. But with the pandemic incentivizing schools to play regional schedules, the doors opened.

Winthrop’s Noah Dunn tries to shoot as he’s swarmed by the Gardiner defense during a game Wednesday at Winthrop High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“It’s something absolutely new,” MacArthur said. “These kids get to see more familiar faces. Because the MVC’s so spread out, yes, we know the kids within our own conference, but we also get an opportunity now to play kids that we grew up with.”

This season, the similarities between the teams haven’t ended there. Both the Ramblers and Tigers have been affected by the choppy start-and-stop nature that comes with COVID, and both teams are still trying to figure out their court chemistry at a time of year that would normally be the start of the homestretch.

For Winthrop, those issues have come mostly on the defensive end, and they’ve plagued the team in the start to the season.

“They’re learning every day and get better every day, and it takes time,” MacArthur said. 

MacArthur said that’s less a comment on the team’s experience, and more an indication of early-season problems that tend to be worked out over the course of 18 regular season games.

“It’s not about new players, it’s not about old players. It’s about togetherness,” he said. “We’re such a team-oriented defense. … That’s something we can’t just flip a switch (for), it happens overnight. You have to get the reps, you have to get the continuity.”

Gardiner’s Ryan Moore shoots over Winthrop’s Noah Grube during a game Wednesday at Winthrop High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The Ramblers took a step forward Wednesday. In the second quarter, Winthrop goaded Gardiner into five turnovers in a two-minute stretch, turning a 15-15 tie into a 22-15 Rambler lead. In the fourth, Winthrop’s work on the glass and aggressive transition offense fueled a 9-3 run, prompting a Gardiner timeout with 3:58 to play and the lead up to 18 points.

“Every season we have, you have to start from the bottom,” said Dunn, who also had six rebounds. “Having our practices every day, doing the same thing over and over, we start to build muscle memory with each other. It builds that chemistry that’s really important.”

“I thought it was a great step in the right direction,” MacArthur said. “We’ve had a good opportunity to grind in the gym, practice and emphasize the things we want to get better at.”

It’s a similar story at Gardiner, which has had to play catch-up. The Tigers got one game in against Mt. Ararat, then were shut down from the 15th until Tuesday. They got one practice in before hitting the court Wednesday.

“We’re looking to improve our team defense, in terms of off-ball rotations, keeping our man in front of us, being great on-ball defenders,” said Toman, who got 10 points from Ryan Moore. “We’re working on our continuity. We’re putting in a new offense this year, and putting in an offense in limited time is certainly hard.

“The more we’re able to practice and play, the more that will come more naturally. A goal for us is to play four quarters. Be consistent for all four quarters.”

Toman said the matchup with Winthrop, a program that has consistently not let opponents get away with sloppy and undisciplined play, would be a good litmus test for his team.

“(MacArthur’s) the best of the best, and they’re a winning program,” he said. “Any time we have a chance to compete against traditionally winning programs, we’re going to take that opportunity.”

The Tigers hung close early, bouncing back from the mistake-prone second quarter to narrow the gap to six points on a Braden Dorogi 3-pointer with 3:02 left in the third, but slid further behind the far more rehearsed Ramblers in the fourth.

“It’s hard to get going and stay going for the whole game when you’ve only had a few days of practice,” Catchings said. “Sometimes it gets lost when we have live defense on us like that.”

Catchings said he expects the outcomes to improve with time.

“Once we get into it, it’ll be a lot easier,” he said. “Once we get later into the season, our conditioning gets better, we get our shot under us, we’ll be all right.”

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