ORONO — Mention Orono High School to any Eastern Maine football fan with a sense of history and the word juggernaut might come to mind.
It’s a fitting adjective, albeit a generation removed.
Jack Lucy knows that better than most. Even his role as a starting two-way tackle on this year’s 9-1 Orono team that will play at Bucksport for the LTC Class C title Saturday doesn’t give him bragging rights when he goes home after practice.
His dad, John Lucy, played for Orono in the late 1970s and early 1980s and never experienced defeat — not once — as the Red Riots ran off 48 consecutive victories between 1977 and 1982.
“Even in this great season we’re having,” said Lucy, “we’ve lost more games than my dad did his entire career.”
This year’s Orono team, however, has taken significant strides in restoring this program to contending status by qualifying for the LTC final for the first time in 15 years.
Many of the veterans on the roster endured a 1-7 campaign in 2009, then went 3-6 last fall.
“We had some tough years,” said senior tight end/defensive back Tyler Higgins. “But we built on that because we wanted to bring the Orono football program back. We were a really young team with a varsity schedule back then. We just took the beatings and learned from them and grew up.”
But the end of last season brought both a sign of better things to come and the harsh knowledge that there was much work still on the road to respectability.
“We played John Bapst last year at the University of Maine and we were ahead of them for three quarters,” said Red Riots coach Bob Sinclair, also an Orono alumnus. “That gave them a glimpse of what they could be. Unfortunately, the next week we got rifled by Bucksport (42-8), and that was a glimpse of where they’d been.”
Orono went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs to eventual regional champion Stearns of Millinocket, but the returning Red Riots rebounded quickly, turning offseason commitment into regular-season success this fall.
“We knew we needed to start winning,” said Lucy. “We hadn’t had a plus-.500 season in a while and we just needed to start getting it done and building some pride in the football team. The soccer teams think they’re the show now around here. We’re getting kind of sick of that.”
The Red Riots answered that challenge by setting an LTC regular-season record by averaging more than 50 points per game, with senior Dominic Mowrer and sophomore Christian Mowrer becoming the first brothers to both surpass 1,000 rushing yards in the same season for an LTC team since twins Mark and Mike Haines led Dexter to the 1985 Class D state championship.
And the third running back behind senior quarterback Bryce Mehnert in Orono’s split-T formation is fullback Cameron Mowrer, Christian’s twin brother who missed Orono’s lone loss this season, a 35-14 defeat at Bucksport in Week 3.
“Those kids really present some problems,” said Bucksport coach Joel Sankey. “And all three run a different way.”
Defensively, the Red Riots have adjusted to the steady increase in spread offenses within the conference and corresponding heightened emphasis on the passing game by many teams.
Higgins and fellow defensive back Dominic Mowrer and linebackers Sam Chase and Cameron Mowrer led Orono in tackles during the regular season. Lucy and end defensive end Michael Fowler each had seven quarterback sacks for the Red Riots, who have averaged more than four sacks per game.
“We had to go to some different defensive schemes to account for the teams that throw the ball,” said Sinclair. “But we’ve got some really bright kids, and when you tell them why you’re doing something they get it.”
Orono expects more of an old-school challenge from Bucksport when those teams meet in a 1 p.m. start at Carmichael Field with a berth in the state championship game at stake.
“I don’t think there’s any question in anybody’s mind that this game is going to be won in the trenches,” said Lucy. “We like to run the ball, they like to run the ball. We’re both physical teams on offense and defense, and I think that’s what it’s going to come down to.”