Comebacks are part of the story for all three Western Maine finalists that will compete in Saturday’s state championship football games at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
Perhaps the biggest one involves senior Jake Steele of Western Maine Class C champion Winthrop.
An impact player for the Ramblers as a sophomore, Steele suffered a shoulder injury in the last game of the 2006 season and aggravated it playing baseball the following spring — requiring surgery that forced him to sit out his junior year of football with the Ramblers.
Steele’s rehabilitation went well enough to enable him to participate in non-contact drills by the end of the 2007 season, but he could only watch as Winthrop lost to Boothbay in last year’s Western C final.
“He was still around, he tried to stay involved with everything we were doing,” said fifth-year Winthrop head coach Joel Stoneton. “I gained even more respect for him than I already had, but it was tough for him because he was excited to see the program doing well but wanted to be even more a part of it.”
Steele is back at full speed this season, leading a balanced rushing attack with 791 yards on 90 carries as the Ramblers have dominated the rest of Western C entering their 2:30 p.m. state final against John Bapst of Bangor.
Not only are the Ramblers 11-0, they’ve outscored their opposition 384-40.
Steele teams with Riley Cobb (448 yards), Joe Morey (609 yards) and fullback Skylar Whaley (447 yards, 14 TDs) behind quarterback Jordan Conant, who has completed 43 of 82 passes for 645 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Steele scored three touchdowns and joined Cobb and Morey in rushing for more than 100 yards apiece in the regional final, when Winthrop raced out to a 27-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 34-0 victory over Lisbon.
That marked the seventh shutout of the season for the Ramblers, who have forced nine turnovers in shutout playoff victories over Livermore Falls (44-0) and Lisbon.
The senior-laden Ramblers, seeking their first state title since 2000, are led defensively by linebackers Andrew Smithgall (94 tackles) and Whaley (81 tackles) and defensive ends Kevin Hart (11 QB sacks, six fumble recoveries) and Josh Confer (four sacks, four fumble recoveries).
“I think the key has been that it’s been 11 guys playing as a unit,” Stoneton said. “They’re very unselfish.”
Like Steele, Bonny Eagle of Standish running back Josh Ruby has overcome injury issues to earn a spot in this year’s state championship spotlight.
Ruby thought his senior season was over after suffering a knee injury early this season. The initial prognosis was a torn anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that would have required reconstructive surgery and meant the end of his high school football career.
But subsequent checks revealed that the posterior cruciate ligament that was injured, not the ACL. No surgery was required, and Ruby was sidelined just three weeks.
Now fully back as a key part of the Fighting Scots’ offensive arsenal, Ruby rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown in Bonny Eagle’s 20-0 victory at Thornton Academy of Saco in the Western A final.
That win advanced coach Kevin Cooper’s club to the Class A state final and a chance to win its fourth state title in the last five years. Bonny Eagle won it all in 2004, 2005 and 2007.
The Fighting Scots are 9-2, dropping a one-point decision to Deering of Portland that they avenged with a 26-14 victory in the regional semifinals, and forfeiting a win over Westbrook because of using an ineligible player in the final moments.
Bonny Eagle features the favorite for the Fitzpatrick Trophy symbolic of the state’s top senior player in quarterback Nate Doehler.
Doehler, who likely would have won that trophy last year had he been eligible, has both passed and rushed for more than 1,000 for the second straight season. And this season he has 16 rushing touchdowns and 17 passing touchdowns out of the Fighting Scots’ spread formation.
Ruby is one of Doehler’s primary offensive weapons, while Joe Davis and tight end Travis Dunn are his favorite receiving targets.
Bonny Eagle will face Skowhegan in the 6 p.m. Class A state final.
Mountain Valley of Rumford’s comeback involved returning from last year’s disappointment in the Class B state final when the Falcons fell to Gardiner 21-14 back to the final for the third consecutive year and fourth time in the last five seasons.
Coach Jim Aylward’s club has been a juggernaut in the Western B ranks, outscoring its opposition 516-74 this season and remaining undefeated at 11-0 with a 28-19 victory over Cape Elizabeth in the regional final.
The Falcons feature the 1-2 offensive punch of senior running backs Justin Staires and Ben Laubauskas. Staires, another Fitzpatrick Trophy contender, has rushed for 1,700 yards each of the last two seasons, while Laubauskas has been an unstoppable power back.
Adding balance to the Mountain Valley attack is quarterback Cam Kaubris and wideout Travis Ruff, who have combined on three touchdown passes in the Falcons’ two postseason victories.
Mountain Valley will battle Morse of Bath for the state Class B title at 11 a.m. in search of its third state championship in the last five years. The Falcons defeated Winslow in both the 2004 and 2006 finals.