At the beginning of this decade, the Yarmouth hockey program set the standard.

Heroes named Darling, Delaney, Fletcher and Foster, led by a skilled tactician named Matusovich, broke hearts from Cape Elizabeth to Falmouth to Gardiner en route to Class B championships in 2001 and 2002.

But in recent seasons, the well went dry and a once proud program fell off the map.

If early results this winter are any indication, however, perhaps it won’t be long until Clipper Pride returns.

Yarmouth opened the 2009-10 campaign with victories over Camden (3-2, in overtime) and Westbrook (5-1). Then, Saturday night, the Clippers gave defending Class B champion Greely everything it could handle for 45 minutes before dropping a hard-fought 5-3 decision.

While Yarmouth (which has seven state championships to its credit) might still have a way to go to return to glory, the program appears relevant once more.

“Our four seniors have taken a beating for three years,” said fifth-year coach Marc Halsted. “We’ve had a ton of injuries and tough losses. To see them come out with passion (against Greely) was inspiring. It was a great effort.”

In the opener, the Clippers got a pair of goals from sophomore Alex Kurtz (including the winner in OT). Senior Steven Petrovek also scored. Versus Westbrook, Kurtz and junior Joey King each had a pair of goals. Senior Ethan Gray was solid in goal in both contests.

Saturday, Yarmouth made an early statement, taking a 1-0 lead on a Petrovek tally. After the Rangers tied the score on junior Justin Murphy’s unassisted strike, sophomore Marshall Brunelle put the Clippers back on top, assisted by Kurtz and Petrovek. A goal from senior Ben Walsh brought Greely even after two.

Early in the third, the champs took their first lead, 3-2, on a goal from freshman Kenny Richards (assisted by Walsh and sophomore Pete Stauber), but the Clippers didn’t buckle and made it 3-3 with 10:03 to play when Kurtz scored from Brunelle. Despite ample opportunities down the stretch (Yarmouth had a 34-25 edge in shots on goal), the underdogs couldn’t spring the upset.

With 1:52 to go, just moments after the Clippers nearly took the lead at one end, Greely freshman Erik Rost broke in on Gray (20 saves) and fired a long shot, which was denied. Unfortunately for Yarmouth, the rebound kicked right back to Rost, who fired a shot home to make it 4-3. The Rangers then accounted for the 5-3 final when Murphy scored into an empty net with seven seconds remaining.

It was Greely’s ninth straight win over the Clippers, dating back to a 2-1 Yarmouth win on Feb. 17, 2005.

The Clippers were encouraged, but not satisfied with their effort.

“We’re not going to let them be happy with it,” Halsted said. “We expect to win. We should have won tonight. We had our chances and didn’t capitalize. It was a good effort. A lot of growth.

“It’s not that we didn’t work hard, but (Greely) worked incredibly hard. (Rangers coach) Barry (Mothes) had to replace his top three lines and sets of D. He does a great job. Greely beat us. They were the better team tonight, but there was a message sent, mostly to our guys, that we can compete and we should expect to win.”

For the Rangers, the result was another positive in what figures to be a season of growth and transition. Last year’s juggernaut is barely recognizable this winter after graduation and flight to prep school, but Greely is 2-0 to date (shocking Cape Elizabeth 5-4, in overtime, in the opener).

“I think we’ll be in a lot of close games all year,” said Mothes. “I thought Yarmouth played a heck of a game, credit to them. They’re hungry and they move the puck well. They’re an improved team. They have guys with good skill with the puck. I think they’ll win their share of games this year.

“We have a lot of new faces in our lineup. (The Clippers) probably have more core guys back than we do. Our youth really showed in the first period. We didn’t look like we knew what we were trying to do. We talked about being outworked and the kids responded with a good second and a very strong third. We had sustained pressure in their zone. It’s a work in progress, but it was a good win. We can’t take things for granted. I think we’ve shown some good creativity with the puck. We’ve scored some sweet little goals and we’ve jammed in some rebounds. It’s nice to see that mix.”

The Rangers were at York Wednesday and take a trip up north to Presque Isle and Houlton-Hodgdon Friday and Saturday to put the wraps on the countable portion of the 2009 schedule.

Greely expects every night from here on out to bring a test.

“It’s like 18 playoff games this year,” Mothes said..”The games will be tight, which is good for us to learn. That’s how you get better.”

Back to the Clippers. After just 17 combined wins over the past four playoff-less seasons, the goal is to continue to improve and restore excitement to the program. Yarmouth was home with Leavitt Wednesday (its first home game of the pre- or regular season).

“Three league wins would be a great start to the season,” Halsted said. “If we can beat Leavitt, we’d go into break feeling pretty good.”

Yarmouth hosts South Portland in last pre-holiday break contest Saturday.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]