MILLINOCKET — As Dave Trainor and Steve Waceken walked off the field after leading the 2006 Stearns Middle School football team to an undefeated season, the conversation turned to the future.
“We said to each other that this was a team that was going to do something special,” recalled Trainor, who with Waceken shared the coaching duties for that collection of two dozen seventh- and eighth-graders from the Magic City.
Fast-forward four years, and the two coaches were spot-on with their prediction. The 2010 Stearns High School football team — featuring 13 seniors and several key juniors from that middle school squad — is unbeaten and will play Yarmouth for the state Class C title beginning at 6 p.m. Saturday from Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium.
“We knew walking off the field that day (in 2006) that if that group stayed together and really believed in themselves, they’d have a chance to win the gold ball one day,” said Waceken.
The 2006 Stearns Middle School team went 8-0 against a schedule similar to that currently played by the high school team.
And the team leaders then are the team leaders now, Trainor said.
“They’re the ones whose picture was in (Monday’s) Bangor Daily News holding up the (Eastern Maine Class C) trophy,” said Trainor, speaking of current Stearns senior captains Charlie Tapley, Jared McGreevy and Billy Eurich.
“They were great leaders,” added Waceken. “You knew they were special players even then. I remember calling (current Stearns High defensive coordinator) John Jamo at the post office and telling him that we had a stud linebacker in Billy Eurich who was coming up through.”
Eurich, Tapley, McGreevy and Co. had plenty of help in 2006 just as they have in 2010, including then eighth-graders like Ethan Michaud, Jeremy Bolduc, Brandon McLaughlin and Brandon Bouchard and then seventh-graders like Josh Studer and Ryan Hibbs.
“They were an easy group to coach,” said Waceken, who still coaches middle-school football in Millinocket and was part of the coaching staff for the last Stearns High team to win a state title in 1998. “They listened, and they worked hard.”
Those traits weren’t lost on others involved with the sport at the time.
“There was a group of officials who had done a lot of our games that year, and one of the officials after the last game volunteered that Stearns Middle School was the top team in Eastern Maine, even over the Bangor teams that year, as far as play on the field and sportsmanship,” Trainor said. “For someone else like that to make the same observation that Steve and I already believed was special to us, and we let the kids know that.”
And those players have had the highest of expectations ever since then.
“We’ve been dreaming about this and talking about this since our eighth-grade year,” said McGreevy, the quarterback on both unbeaten Stearns teams. “We went undefeated in eighth grade, we said we were going to and we did it. Now we’ve got one more fight left in Portland.”
Success didn’t come immediately in high school, though several of the youngsters — particularly Tapley, who started on both offense and defense, and McGreevy, who got most of the repetitions at quarterback — became immediate contributors as freshmen.
“Our freshman year we had some rough games,” said senior split end and defensive back Cody Herring, “but we knew if we kept working that this was the year that we were all going to get what we’ve always wanted.”
The Minutemen worked their way into the LTC playoffs a year later, going 5-4 in 2008 and falling to that year’s state champion, John Bapst of Bangor, 48-26 in the regional quarterfinals.
Last year produced another step forward for a junior-laden Stearns team, which reached the LTC semifinals before being ousted by 2009 regional champion Foxcroft Academy 28-8 to end the season with a 7-3 record.
This year’s veteran Stearns team — with 13 seniors and eight juniors among its 29 players — was pegged as the LTC’s preseason favorite, and a stout defense and physical offense have enabled the Minutemen to live up to the hype.
“We knew that it was a talented group of kids, but going from eighth grade to high school things change drastically,” said Stearns High School head coach Chris Preble after the LTC final. “But those kids had that belief, and as long as you believe in something and are willing to work for it, you can get there. It’s not easy, it’s a work in progress, but as long as you stay the course and are determined — and they are — they’ve set a goal, they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, and they’re right where they want to be.”
That’s one game from achieving a goal several years in the making.
“I knew back when we were in eighth grade that when we were seniors we’d be one of the top teams to beat,” said McLaughlin, “but I couldn’t imagine back then being 11-0 and Eastern Maine champs with a chance to go 12-0 and win the gold ball. It’s unreal.”
But Dave Trainor and Steve Waceken knew it all along.