Just six high school football teams statewide enter Week 11 of the season, when regional champions are crowned, undefeated.
That the Bucksport Golden Bucks are in that group perhaps represents one of the more under-the-radar accomplishments among a group of unbeatens that also includes 2010 state champions Cheverus of Portland and Yarmouth along with Lawrence of Fairfield, Leavitt of Turner Center and Wells.
“If someone had told us at the beginning of the year we’d be here we would have been surprised,” said 18th-year head coach Joel Sankey. “We thought we’d be competitive, maybe one of the top four.”
The top-ranked Golden Bucks (10-0) host second-seeded Orono (9-1) for the LTC championship at 1 p.m. Saturday at Carmichael Field, seeking their first Class C regional title since 2004 when Fitzpatrick Trophy winner Nick Tymoczko led Bucksport to the state crown.
“This started last year,” said Sankey. “After the season this group of seniors worked very, very hard and they worked hard through the summer. These kids have matured. We have experience and good leadership and some good athletes, and some of the younger kids have stepped up for us.”
Bucksport is back in the regional final for the first time since 2008, when another lightning-fast 2,000-yard rusher, Nate Warren, led the way.
This year’s team may not have a tailback with sprinter’s speed like those predecessors, but is not without substantial offensive weapons in quarterback Mike Cummings and running back Shawn Smith, two of the team’s 17 seniors.
“We don’t have a kid like Nate or Nick, those kind of kids only come around once in a great while,” said Sankey, whose 113 career wins rank third all-time in LTC coaching victories behind former Foxcroft Academy coach Paul Withee (151) and former Stearns of Millinocket and Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln coach Art Greenlaw (134).
“We play a physical type of football. We’re very physical on defense, our offensive line comes right at you and our special teams are improved.”
Cummings has accounted for more than 1,200 yards of total offense, completing 53 of 95 passes for 602 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception, with Jake Stewart and Josh Gray among his favorite targets.
Cummings also has rushing for 662 yards and 12 more touchdowns on 80 carries.
The 240-pound Smith spearheads a physical Bucksport ground game, having rushed for 754 yards and seven touchdowns on 132 carries while working in tandem with backfield mate Chris Powell, whom Sankey considers one of the team’s top leaders.
“It’s no secret, first of all you’ve got to find a way to slow down Smith,” said Orono coach Bob Sinclair. “He runs hard and we just can’t let him run over us. Recently they’ve backed him up in the I (formation) so they’ve got him at eight yards with a head start just barreling into you. We need to be cognizant of that.
“The other part of their two-headed monster is Cummings. How do you prepare for someone who cuts and jukes and jives like he does? You just have to be ready and you can’t be timid. We have to come after him, and we also have to contend with their pass game.”
Bucksport’s defense is the league’s stingiest, allowing just 7.3 points per game, and its strength begins along a front line anchored by senior tackle Damon Klinedinst.
“Damon is very, very strong and very quick,” said Sankey. “He manhandles people.”
Linebackers Powell, Smith and sophomore Nick Bishop, a transfer from Hermon, have ranked among the team’s leading tacklers, while the defense also has gotten a boost from senior Jordan Fogg, who returned to the team after being sidelined by an offseason illness.
Bucksport expects to be tested by an Orono team that set an LTC regular-season record by averaging more than 50 points per game and whose only loss was a 35-14 decision at Bucksport in Week 3.
“They’re a good team,” said Sankey. “They were down a couple of players the last time we played them. Now they’re improved and they’re on a roll.”