The Windham Eagles represent part of the new wave of Maine high school football, with their birth on the gridiron coming barely a decade ago.
But through its infancy at the Class B club level, its early varsity stages as an Eastern Maine team playing in the Pine Tree Conference Class A ranks and now the last five seasons as a member of the Southern Maine Activities Association, the program has experienced steady growth.
Now Windham is just one win away from its first state championship, with an 11 a.m. date Saturday against undefeated Bangor in the 2009 Class A final at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
“From day one we knew we had to get better, and that’s been our mantra right along,” said eighth-year Windham coach Matt Perkins. “We’ve tried not to have the kids worry so much about their opponents as about what they do on the field.”
Windham reached the regional semifinals in 2008 but has truly arrived this fall with a 10-1 record that includes two victories over two-time defending state champion Bonny Eagle of Standish.
“Last year we felt we won the games we should have, but we didn’t have that success against the higher-echelon teams,” said Perkins. “This year we’ve beaten some of those higher-echlelon teams and become one of them.”
Windham is led by senior quarterback Jackson Taylor, who has passed for some 1,300 yards with 15 touchdowns and just one interception and also is a dangerous running threat.
He is complemented by senior running back Jack Mallis, a 1,500-yard rusher who scored the only touchdown in Windham’s 7-6 victory over Cheverus in last Saturday’s Western Maine Class A final.
“We’ve actually had pretty good balance,” Perkins said. “We’ve had games when we’ve leaned on Taylor and the passing game, and days when we’ve leaned on Mallis and the running game.
Matt Gledhill, a senior H-back, is the team’s leading receiver, while Jake Darling is the tight end.
Windham’s biggest rebuilding task this fall came on the line of scrimmage, where only two starters were back on offense and just one on defense.
But with veteran center Kevin Springer leading the way, the Eagles developed a solid front including tackle Nick Ramsdell, guard Matt Libby and nose guard Matt Morse.
Defensively, Windham has allowed just 10 points per game since its 27-13 loss at Cheverus during Week 2 of the regular season.
“That was the turning point for us,” said Perkins. “After the Cheverus game we had a long talk and said, ‘We’re 1-1, we can either pack it up and be average or we can take a hard look at ourselves and see what we need to do to be where we want to be.
“It was a pretty pivotal point for us, but everyone banded together.”
Senior linebacker Dylan Sabasteanski is the team’s leading tackler, while Gledhill at linebacker, Mallis at free safety, defensive end Matt Wilson and cornerback T.J. Robbins are other top defenders.
One highlight of the team’s current nine-game win streak was a 14-0 Week 6 victory at Bonny Eagle, Windham’s lone shutout of the season and the clearest sign that this program had joined the Western A elite.
“Going into Bonny Eagle this year, shutting them out and holding them under 100 total yards proved to the kids that we were going to be all right,” Perkins said.
Postseason play in the balanced SMAA also proved challenging to the Eagles. After a 42-7 romp over No. 7 Sanford, No. 2 Windham reached the state final via two one-point playoff wins, including a 22-21 overtime victory over Bonny Eagle that the Eagles won with a two-point conversion pass from Taylor to Darling after the Fighting Scots had already scored seven points during their possession.
Then came the rematch against Cheverus, and a one-point win forged on defense and an 80-yard, third-quarter scoring drive that featured 70 rushing yards by Mallis, including a 1-yard dive to the end zone.
“We feel we’re battle tested,” said Perkins.