MILLINOCKET — Chris Preble arrived at Stearns High School four hours before last Saturday's Eastern Maine Class C football championship game — but he wasn't alone.
"I got here at 9 o'clock," said the 10th-year head coach of the Minutemen, "and there were cars already in the parking lot."
Preble probably wasn't surprised, given how the once-storied milltown has taken to its undefeated football team.
Drive down Penobscot Avenue in the Magic City's business district, and active businesses and empty storefronts are about 50-50 — a sight not uncommon in northern Maine communities where the population has decreased as the jobs have gone elsewhere.
But check out many of those storefront windows, and the blue-printed messages on them are clear — there's plenty of community pride in anticipation of Saturday evening's state championship game against Yarmouth at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
"It's bringing our town back to life," said Brandon Bouchard, one of 13 seniors on the 29-player Stearns squad. "It's bringing people back to our town, and giving them a reason to be happy. It's just as big for the town as it is for us."
This championship run by Preble and the Minutemen rekindles memories of a more prosperous era for the Millinocket area, an era when Great Northern Paper Co. provided plenty of well-paying jobs and plenty of career opportunities for generations of young adults looking to settle down and raise their families.
And with plenty of kids in town, the school's athletic programs enjoyed considerable success, including in football where Stearns won four Class C state championships and six Eastern Maine titles in the 1990s alone.
But changes in ownership and changes in the paper industry have left Millinocket as a milltown without a mill, forcing those young adults who once replenished the city's population to move elsewhere to make their way in the world.
Now Stearns is the smallest football-playing school in the state by far with just 200 students as of April 1 — and school officials are looking toward China to increase its enrollment.
And the second-smallest football-playing high school in Maine? That's another once-proud milltown, Jay, which with its current enrollment of 244 students is set to vote in January on a possible merger with neighboring Livermore Falls.
There's nothing to suggest that Stearns will merge with a neighboring school any time soon, meaning the celebratory feeling surrounding this year's Stearns football team also may represent the last chance to experience such state title glory.
Only 16 players on the roster will return next fall — including just one from the current freshman class — and the middle-school program had numbers in the upper teens this year.
But for this week at least, the focus is on the exciting present rather than the less certain future, and if last Saturday's crowd at Alumni Field to watch the Minutemen defeat John Bapst of Bangor 21-7 for their first regional title since 1998 is any indication, the Blue and White of Stearns High School will be well represented when one of the most well-known programs in Eastern Maine takes on an undefeated Yarmouth team that represents the nouveau riche in Maine high school football — the Clippers are playing varsity football for just the fourth season.
"I think I can speak for everyone on the team and everyone in town when I say it's the best feeling in the world," said Stearns junior Jude Tapley, a star defensive end for the Minutemen. "We're still bleeding blue for one more week."