The participants in Friday night’ s Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic already have an appreciation for the larger purpose of this annual clash of the state’ s top recently graduated high school football players.
That’ s raising money for the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children. The event’ s first 18 games generated more than $340,000 for the charity, and players and cheerleaders have raised more than $63,000 this year.
“When we went down to the first team meeting in April and they showed us all the work the Shriners do, it was impressive,” said Ian Nevells, a defensive end from Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln. “A lot of people don’ t really give to charities that much, and this is a nice way to get it accomplished.
“A lot of people see what the Shriners do and say, ‘ this really doesn’ t affect me,’ but most of us are going to have children and we might need the services of the Shriners, and it’ s nice to know that you helped. Even if it’ s just helping out your neighbor and not yourself, it’ s nice to know that you helped.”
That part of the event remains a focal point throughout a week of pregame training held at Hebron Academy, but come game day — the opening kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at historic Waterhouse Field in Biddeford — the focus turns to football.
And while the West leads the series 14-4, the East heads into the 19th annual contest as the winner of three of the last five contests and two straight, including a 47-27 victory over the West last summer.
“We really want to keep it going,” said Jake Arthers, a free safety from Belfast. “It’ s all for the kids, but we’ re going out to play football and you always want to win when you’ re playing football.”
Last year’ s offensive outburst by the East marked the second-highest point total in the Lobster Bowl history, trailing only the East’ s 55-8 victory in 2003 that marked the start of its current run of success after the West had won 13 of the first 14 meetings.
Whether either team will be able to amass that many points this year remains to be seen, but both teams are loaded with impact players from their high school years.
The East roster includes seven all-stars who played quarterback in high school, a group led by Fitzpatrick Trophy winner Jack Hersom of Lawrence of Fairfield and Dan Hussey of Waterville, who will share QB duties.
“We’ ve got a lot of guys in different positions,” said East head coach Butch Arthers, “but they’ ve all been really good about saying if you need me here, I’ ll do it.”
Running backs include Darrus Grate of Morse of Bath, Shawn Champagne of Lawrence, Kyle Vanidestine of Bangor and Andrew Weiss of Rockland, while the receiving corps includes Ryan Weston of Bangor, Lance Getchell of Old Town, Ed Rodrigues of Mount View of Thorndike, Joe Gilbert of Mt. Blue of Farmington and Evan Barker of Leavitt of Turner Center.
“Offensively we’ ve got a pretty good bunch, but we’ re not as big as the West team,” said Arthers. “They’ ve got some big kids this year, and we don’ t have huge, huge size.
“But in looking at the roster I just saw a lot of names I’ ve been reading about for the last three or four years who have made huge impacts on their football teams. We have some tremendous skill players this year, so if we can win some of the battles up front I think we can be somewhat successful.”
The West will be quarterbacked by Jeff Elliott of Massabesic of Waterboro and Mike Unterkoefler of Lisbon, with Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist Justin Villacci of Gorham leading the running backs.
“Jeff is more of an option quarterback, while Unterkoefler is more of a passer, so we’ ve got two different schemes we can go with,” said West head coach Tim Roche of Wells. “But I love our team speed. You’ ll have a fast kid on your high school roster, but you don’ t have 11 fast kids on your roster like we have here.”
And most of the players may compete at a level even a bit faster than normal, given that for many it will be their last organized football game.
“Both teams will play as hard as they can, because for a lot of the kids it’ s their last football game,” said coach Arthers, who also is coaching his last game after retiring as Belfast’ s co-coach after the 2007 season. “It’ s important that we execute and work hard in practice and be respectful of the coaches, and ultimately the game is more about the Shriners and the kids and that part of it.
“But we’ ve told the kids that on Friday night when we step on the field we’ re going to play football, and your natural instincts will take over and you’ ll be banging heads and having a good time.”