The first month of the winter sports season has given us a glimpse into what each team might be capable of the rest of the way, but the true test that will separate the contenders from the pretenders will come over the next two months as the sports calendar enters a critical stretch.
The conference season officially tips off for most boys and girls basketball teams tonight, while some annual invitationals will also be hosted this weekend. Winning your conference opener or a loaded invitational does not guarantee future success, but it could jumpstart a squad and put them on track to win a championship.
Here's a look at five key events happening this weekend that could impact conference and postseason races in the future.
Grand Haven basketball doubleheader
When: Today, 6 and 7:30 p.m.
Where: Jenison High School
The Grand Haven boys and girls varsity teams won't be opening their O-K Red Conference schedules until next week, but tonight's non-conference tilts with Jenison could prove the Buccaneers are contenders for both league and postseason trophies.
The Grand Haven boys squad will open things up at 6 p.m., as they take on the Wildcats (3-3), who have lost three of their last four contests. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, have won four of their last five games, including back-to-back wins last weekend to capture their third straight Lakeshore Cup title.
The nightcap will pit the undefeated Buccaneer girls (5-0) against a scrappy Jenison team (3-2) that recorded a win over O-K Red foe Hudsonville (56-50) on Dec. 21. The Wildcats are considered a contender in both the O-K Black and district races, so Grand Haven will have to put together a quality road performance in order to stay unbeaten heading into next week's showdown with West Ottawa to open conference play.
Spring Lake basketball doubleheader
When: Today, 6 and 7:30 p.m.
Where: Spring Lake High School
The Spring Lake boys and girls basketball teams will open their O-K Blue Conference season with home matchups against Sparta tonight.
The Laker boys are currently on a four-game losing streak and will be looking to start 2019 off on the right foot. It won't be an easy task, however, as the Spartans enter tonight's showdown with an impressive 5-1 record. Other than a narrow loss to Fremont, Sparta has blitzed past its competition thus far, with wins over Holland Calvary (53-39), Howard City Tri-County (62-43), Holton (71-9), Belding (56-36) and Grant (54-51).
The Spring Lake girls are on a three-game winning streak since dropping their season-opener to Rockford on Dec. 4. Their O-K Blue Conference opener will also be a tough test, as the Sparta girls squad is on a four-game winning streak since dropping their season opener to Cedar Springs. The Spartans rolled past Holland (58-29), Fremont (38-25), Belding (60-18) and Grant (53-33) to enter tonight's showdown with plenty of confidence to go toe-to-toe with the Lakers.
The winner of both games will have a leg up in the league race, which could prove to be pivotal this winter, as there appears to be plenty of parity in the conference on both the boys' and girls' sides.
Spring Lake Swim Invitational
When: Saturday, 9 a.m.
Where: Spring Lake Aquatic Center
Teams: Spring Lake, Reeths-Puffer, Fremont, Ludington, Manistee, Northview
The Spring Lake boys swim and dive team will host their annual invitational meet Saturday morning, as the Lakers will test themselves against some of their former Coastal Conference rivals and a few local challengers.
The Lakers are coming off a tough 103-83 loss to rival Grand Haven on Dec. 20, but the squad still returns plenty of firepower from last year's third-place finish at the Division 3 state meet. The only question is whether or not the roster will have enough depth to help the team win dual meets and large invitationals.
A little home pool advantage could be just what the Lakers need to start the new year off with a win.
Adam H. Provencal Invitational
When: Saturday, 9:30 a.m.
Where: Grand Haven High School
Teams: Grand Haven, Fruitport, Big Rapids, Brighton, Comstock Park, Edwardsburg, Forest Hills Eastern, Forest Hills Northern, Hart, Manistee, New Buffalo, Jackson Northwest, Otsego, Pine River, Portage Northern, Shelby, Sparta, Thornapple Kellogg, Traverse City West and Zeeland West.
The Grand Haven wrestling program is set to host their annual invitational tournament honoring the late Grand Haven soccer and wrestling standout Adam Provencal. The event has become one of the premier midseason invitationals in the state and that will again be the case this winter.
After finishing third last season, the Buccaneer grapplers will be motivated to win back their home invitational trophy, but it won't be easy. A wide collection of successful programs will be present Saturday, including local teams like Fruitport; last year's event champion, Hart; and last year's runner-up, Sparta.
Grand Haven-Spring Lake hockey vs. West Catholic
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Lakeshore Sports Centre
The Grand Haven-Spring Lake co-op hockey team will be searching for a pivotal league win Saturday night, as the Buccaneers (5-6, 2-1 Fischer Division) take on Grand Rapids West Catholic (4-5, 2-2 Fischer Division) at the Lakeshore Sports Centre in Muskegon at 7 p.m.
A win this weekend could keep the Bucs in the hunt for the league title, while a loss will place them firmly in the middle of the pack.
Look for playmakers like Kyle Eveland, Trevor Kalis, Cooper Fox, Evan Yasick and Ethan Pennington to light the home lamp plenty of times and get the squad back on the right track in 2019, after closing out 2018 with a narrow loss to East Grand Rapids (6-4).