OLD TOWN — As Steve Calande began meeting members of the Old Town High School football team last summer, the Coyotes’ new coach quickly came face-to-face with the stark reality of a program that had experienced victory just four times in the previous eight years.
“I remember asking one of my players if he was tough, and he said, ‘Coach, I can really take a beating,'” said Calande, who had spent the previous two years at Boothbay after coaching at the junior high, middle school and high school levels in Pennsylvania since 1989.
“In 20 years of coaching I had never heard a kid say he could take a beating. I’ve heard them say they like to hit people and things like that, but to hear him say that was stunning.”
Less than four months later, that memory remains vivid, but the reality of that statement seems far removed. For while the Coyotes will not be crowned state champions this season — they aren’t eligible for the playoffs after playing down an enrollment class for the last three years in an effort to save the program — they are competitive again.
After going 4-62 from 2002 through 2009, Old Town is 4-3 in LTC Class C this fall heading into its season finale at Rockland on Friday night.
“The first time I saw (Calande), I thought, he’s a football coach,” said Nathan Richardson, a senior center for the Coyotes. “Coach made a promise when he first came here that he’d bring us wins. That’s the first thing he said to us, that we will win.”
When Calande arrived in Old Town as the team’s sixth head coach in the last eight years, he brought with him self-confidence, experience and the double-wing offense, a tightly knit, run-oriented attack that relies on teamwork at the expense of individual acclaim.
“We sold them quickly on the idea that there wouldn’t be any superstars or we wouldn’t have the record that we wanted,” said Calande, “and that there wasn’t going to be any special treatment. Everybody was going to be treated the same regardless of grade level.”
Initially, not everyone bought the new coach’s optimism.
“I was skeptical,” said Brad Ehman, a senior tackle. “This was my third coach in four years, and all of them had said the same thing.”
But Ehman and his veteran teammates quickly came around.
“You could see the difference when he came in and brought a new offense,” said Richardson. “In practice we kept repping plays. We ran plays all the time instead of just running, we were having fun and playing fun. We were bringing our mojo.”
The almost instant change in attitude was striking given that the team whose home is Victory Field had rarely experienced that feeling — Old Town’s last winning campaign had been 13 years ago, in 1997 when the program last qualified for postseason play.
“Honestly, I just got used to losing,” said Ehman. “We’d come out every week and play as hard as we could and have a good time. We’d always try to win, but it just never happened for us.”
“There was definitely a lot of frustration after going to practice every day, every week and just going out and basically getting crushed,” added Cody St. Louis, a senior wingback and cornerback. “There was no momentum, no morale. It was still fun at the time, but it would have been more fun to win.”
The wins would be forthcoming. After opening the season with a 46-22 loss at Calais-Woodland, the Coyotes celebrated their home opener with a 24-20 victory over Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln — a team that had scored 85 points against Old Town when they met just a year earlier.
“It showed us that he wasn’t lying to us,” said Ehman. “He told us what we were going to do and he did it. He made us a good team, and it felt really good to win.”
The Coyotes have won three more games since then — all homecoming contests, including a 54-22 victory at local rival Orono — and have averaged 29.5 points per game.
A last-second loss to defending Eastern Maine Class C champion Foxcroft Academy last Saturday subdued some of the building excitement within the program, but as one of five LTC teams with a 4-3 record, the Coyotes — for the first time in a long time — know they belong.
“It’s cultural, it’s in how you do things,” said Calande. “You set the expectations high, you hold the players accountable, and you hold the coaches accountable. If you communicate all the expectations and clearly show that you’re not fooling around and you’re going to do things a certain way, change can happen pretty quickly.”
Calande hopes the Coyotes will become eligible to compete for a postseason berth next year, perhaps in a four-class arrangement in which the Coyotes would be one of the larger schools in Class B.
“I think we can be competitive regardless because of the kind of kids we have and the quality of the coaching staff,” he said. “But I’d like to see a bigger commitment to the weight room and see us fundraise to get a better weight room.”
As for the seniors on this year’s squad, there will be no postseason play, but they will leave the program with the knowledge, as Richardson put it, that “we’re the year of the change.”
And with the double-wing now permeating the city’s football program from the peewee level up, there’s as much optimism about Old Town’s future on the gridiron as there’s been in more than a decade — and a team at the high school level that’s setting a successful example.
“We’ve brought something new in and we’ve won with it and it’s been cool,” said Richardson. “So if the next groups have been running it for three or four years when they get here, think how good they’ll be at it.”