MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s early January and it’s bitterly cold outside, but that also means high school sports teams are entering the gauntlet that is the conference season.

Many teams spent December playing non-conference competition both in tournaments and in some rivalry games to get the competitive juices flowing. Most programs want to give their talent a test and see where they stand with the competition before the grind that is the conference season.

So what makes league play around Minnesota so intriguing? The opponents know each other very well. There are few surprises, which means the team with the best talent often comes out a winner. But the joy of watching conference play unfold is the same that stresses coaching staffs. Anybody can win on any given night.

That said, there are some big match-ups this week as teams get started league play both on the basketball court in and area hockey rinks. Here are some of the top games this weekend.

Friday Girls Basketball: Hopkins (10-2) at Maranatha Christian Academy (5-3)

One of the better match-ups in girls basketball takes place Friday night in Brooklyn Park between a pair of ranked teams and recent state champions. It’s also our featured game for WCCO-TV’s High School Sports Rally as Maranatha Christian Academy takes on Hopkins in non-conference action.

The Royals are ranked No. 2 in Class 4A behind only Eastview after winning the state championship last year, and they’re off to another strong start. Hopkins has won four in a row after dropping its only two games of the season so far, and the Royals are winning with a balanced scoring attack. Molly O’Toole, Nia Hollie and Ashley Bates combine to average 35 points per game for the Royals.

Maranatha won the Class A title two years ago, was a state tournament team last year and is off to another strong start with a top-10 ranking. The Mustangs three losses this year are to teams in higher classes in Burnsville, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and DeLaSalle. Maranatha has no trouble scoring – they put up more than 100 points two straight games and beat Bethany Academy 88-8 last Saturday.  The Mustangs have four players who average scoring in double figures, led by the duo of Alaina Jarnot and Madison Lee, who each score more than 14 points per game.

Friday Boys Basketball: Minneapolis North (6-7) at Minneapolis Henry (3-6)

You’ll have to forgive Larry McKenzie if he feels a little weird Friday night when North faces Henry in Minneapolis City Conference action. He currently coaches the Polars, but built a dynasty leading the Patriots to three straight state titles.

Neither team has much trouble scoring as both play an up-tempo game. North is led by Tyler Johnson’s 17.6 points per game and Jamil Jackson adds more than 12. Jovahn Jefferson leads three players for Henry who average double figures as he scores more than 20 points per game. It’s a rivalry match-up that neither team wants to lose.

Friday Boys Basketball: Bloomington Jefferson (7-3) at Lakeville North (10-1)

If you want to see one of the best scorers in the state this week, head to Lakeville North Friday night as J.P. Macura and the Panthers host Bloomington Jefferson in South Suburban Conference play. Macura, who signed to play in college at Xavier, is averaging more than 30 points per game on the season and can score from anywhere on the court. He became the school’s all-time leading scorer earlier this week in a win over Burnsville. Lakeville North has won six straight games since losing early to Hopkins. The Jaguars are led by Tom Gathje’s 14.9 points per game. Bloomington Jefferson, which has won three of its last four, needs a win to keep pace with Apple Valley and Lakeville North in league play.

Saturday Boys Hockey: Edina (12-3) at Hill-Murray (9-2)

You can’t think about boys high school hockey in Minnesota without the Edina and Hill-Murray programs coming to mind. The two powerhouses square off Saturday night in the east Twin Cities metro in a huge non-conference match-up. The Hornets are led by Tyler Nanne and Dylan Malmquist, who have combined for 37 points in 15 games. Miguel Fidler actually leads Edina in scoring with 11 goals and 14 assists. The Pioneers are led by Mitch Slattery’s 19 points and Josh French’s 10 goals through 11 games. Hill-Murray needs a win to snap a two-game skid after winning nine straight to start the season.  Edina has won eight of its last nine games. Both were state tournament teams last year.

Saturday Boys Hockey: Minnetonka (6-7) vs. Benilde-St. Margaret’s (9-3-2)
(TCF Bank Stadium, High School Hockey Faceoff)

TCF Bank Stadium is gearing up for outdoor hockey by hosting a slew of high school games Saturday in Minneapolis. Highlighting the day is Minnetonka against Benilde-St. Margaret’s in a match-up of two very well-respected hockey programs. The Skippers have a much better team than their record would indicate thanks to a brutal early season schedule. They’re led by Nick Greene’s seven goals and 14 points. The Red Knights can score in bunches, and they’re led by Spencer Naas’s 19 goals. Benilde-St. Margaret’s had been on a seven-game unbeaten streak before falling to Wayzata 2-1 last Thursday. Regardless of what transpires this week, it should be a great match-up Saturday between two quality teams in a great atmosphere.

Tune into WCCO-TV’s High School Sports Rally at about 10:20 p.m. Friday as Mike Max, Frank Vascellaro and David McCoy will have all the action covered.