Who is the boss?
In the Merrimack Valley Conference, there are two trains of thought.
"Any team in the Merrimack Valley Conference with a kid going to play at Wake Forest (Central Catholic's 6-11 Carson Desrosiers) has to be the favorite," says Andover High coach Dave Fazio.
Central coach Rick Nault countered, "Andover beat us and dominated in Hoops for Hope this summer. They have to be the favorite."
For the tie-breaker we'll go to Haverhill coach Mike Trovato.
"Central is the favorite with Carson alone,'' he said. "But Andover is going to be very, very good."
The Raiders feature Desrosiers and 6-foot-7 junior Jimmy Zenevitch but must find a way to replace All-Scholastic guard Billy Marsden.
The debate should be settled with two leagues games, a potential Greater Lawrence Christmas Tournament final and a possible date in the Division 1 North tourney all ahead in the coming months.
Desrosiers, currently checking in at No. 75 on the ESPNU Top 100, might be the cover boy, but he's not the only player in this grudge match.
Zenevitch has attracted notice from the mid-majors at the Division 1 level down into the Division 2 ranks.
Golden Warrior junior Joe Bramanti looks improved from last year, when he was an Eagle-Tribune All-Star, while junior forward Brian Miller might go down as the most heavily recruited football player this region has seen in a decade.
Both teams sport talented freshmen - Central's Joel Berroa and Andover's 6-foot-3 Sam Dowden.
Around the Valley
Methuen earned a signature win a year ago when the Rangers locked down the MVC Small title on Dracut's home floor. Methuen will again look to build on the momentum gained in a strong football season.
Four projected starters were impact gridders, including the dynamic passing duo of Cal Carroll and Raudy Minaya plus ends Jason Doyle and James Staples, while key reserve Steve DiZazzo started in the trenches.
Two newcomers to keep an eye on are sophomore Kyle Mansour, who hails from an athletic family, and 6-foot-3 Ken Ibizugbe, who coach Rich Barden classified as a bigtime leaper.
No love lost
Don't expect a ton of love between Central Catholic and North Andover this winter.
As of this week, junior Evan Sheehan, who transferred after scoring 7.6 points a game for the Knights last year, still hadn't been cleared to be a Raider.
"North Andover wouldn't sign off on the form, and we are currently in the appeal process," said Raider coach Rick Nault. "It's too bad for the kid. I know his father has met with just about everyone over at North Andover and nobody will budge."
Ironically, gifted frosh Derek Collins transferred from Central to North Andover early in the fall.
Central senior Jose Batistine, who was cut a year ago, has been a surprise at the point.
Back in the fall, a story in ESPN Rise Magazine, highlighting players to watch in the Bay State, cited Lawrence High's Yadoris Arias.
The junior, however, has never played varsity ball. If Arias can deliver (he has starred in AAU ball), he makes Lawrence another threat for the MVC large title.
The Lancers will look to emerging big man Jesse Hiraldo and point guard Jaylen Alicea.
To a man, the Cape Ann League coaches pointed to North Andover as the team to beat in either division.
The Knights return a pair of all-conference types in CAL Large MVP Tommy O'Connell and silky smooth Matt Sifferlen plus football all-leaguers Alex Blane and Zac Iovanella.
Then there is highly-touted freshman Derek Collins, who many thought would start in the backcourt this winter at Central Catholic. But Collins transferred a month into the school year.
Of course, the Knights have much grander plans, looking to make amends after the upset loss to 10th-seeded Burlington as the No. 2 seed in the first-round of the Division 2 North tourney.
No team was stung more in the offseason than Georgetown, which saw sophomore Jaymie Spears, an Eagle-Tribune Super Teamer, move on to prep power St. Mark's while eighth-grade sensation Noah Vonleh chose Haverhill High after attending junior high in Georgetown on school choice.
Just a week before the school year, Royals coach Mike Rowinski said he'd be attending Georgetown.
The frontcourt returns with banger Julio Colon alongside Chris Esposito and 6-foot-4 shot-alterer Mike Messman.
One newcomer to watch is 6-foot-3 Neph Carmona.
New attitude with the Cats
First-year Whittier coach Tom Sipsey had an ambitious preseason.
"We scrimmaged Methuen and hung with them for a while, losing by 13,'' he explained. "Then we went to Newburyport and were up by five against them with four minutes to go. This weekend we're going to Central Catholic to run a co-mingled practice. I want these kids to be exposed to what this is all about."
The Cats compete in a Commonwealth Large division, where Chelsea rates the slight edge.
Greater Lawrence returns only one starter, but it is dynamic junior Donald Celestin, a returning Eagle-Tribune All-Star.
That could change in the coming weeks when Yeltsin Colon (10.1 ppg) could potentially join the club.
"Right now, he's working through a dislocated shoulder and he says he'll be able to play," said coach Dan Habib. "We will see."