HEBRON, Maine — They arrive at Hebron Academy on what is usually a sweltering Sunday afternoon each July, gifted individually but otherwise mere pieces of an athletic jigsaw puzzle their coaches are anxious to assemble.
And time is scarce, with just a week from the start of this training camp to the opening kickoff of the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic, an annual benefit football showcase featuring the state’s top recently graduated high school standouts.
Proceeds generated from individual fundraising efforts by the participating players and cheerleaders as well as ticket sales for the game, now in its 23rd year, benefit the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
And while football is the common bond for the more than 80 players from throughout the state’s 76 football-playing high schools, the lessons they learn while preparing for the game transcend the language of the gridiron.
“It’s a great opportunity to come down here and play, it’s a great cause and it’s a chance to play with some of the best players in the state,” said Bangor’s Wyatt Frost.
“We had a young lady come in to speak to us in April who had just one leg and she told us her story about how the Shriners hospital had helped her out. It was really inspiring and got everyone in the mood for what we’re playing for. It really let us know that we’re playing for those who can’t.”
But while nearly all of the participants have been playing the sport for years, the different football backgrounds they bring to this game — to be played at 4 p.m. Saturday at historic Waterhouse Field in Biddeford — require instant adjustments in many cases.
“The game here’s like a million miles an hour faster, it’s just so fast,” said Nick Pineo, the first player from Washington Academy of East Machias selected to play in the contest. “You have the best running backs in the state who run the fastest, the best receivers and the best quarterbacks, so it’s like you’re playing at actual game speed all the time instead of being in practice.”
Both teams will employ a spread offense, and while more and more high school teams statewide have eschewed the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality for an approach that places more emphasis on the passing game in recent years, not everyone is familiar with the pro-style formation.
Take Marcus Bacco, a tight end from Calais-Woodland who played in a double-wing alignment that rarely relied on passing throughout his career with the Silverados.
“It’s very different coming from a primarily run-first offense that pounds the ball most every play,” said Bacco, who will be the final Calais-Woodland representative to the Lobster Bowl at least for the near future after that cooperative program was shelved earlier this year due to a lack of participation.
Many players also have to make positional sacrifices for the Lobster Bowl, shifting to another spot for the benefit of the team this week after starring elsewhere during their high school careers.
“We’re doing some of the same coverages we did in high school so that wasn’t too much of an adjustment,” said Frost. “At the same time, I played safety in high school and am at [outside] linebacker here, so that’s been an adjustment, but the coaches have been great in helping me out.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of improvement in the first two days of practice. Our team is coming along and it’s great to see those who aren’t used to playing a certain position stepping up in their roles. Everybody’s doing their job.”
Such quick learning is critical to success in a Lobster Bowl rivalry that has become vastly more competitive in recent years.
The West won 14 of the first 16 games since the game was started in 1990, but the East has won four of the last six contests — though the West is coming off a 16-13 victory in 2011.
“We’re definitely getting better every practice, things are starting to click,” said East head coach Dave Hainer of Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln. “The first day they’re here they’re a little overwhelmed, and on Day 2 they’ve got what you put in on Day 1 down, but when you try to add a little more it’s still tough.
“But today [Tuesday] you can see that they’re getting it, and by Wednesday I want to be just refining things and getting better. That’s our goal, and we’re pretty close.”
The coaches and players understand that such a refined familiarity with the playbook is pivotal to team success, just as solving the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle can prove to be the most rewarding.
“Coming into this I was a little nervous because it’s the best kids in the East versus the best kids in the West, and the competition has grown tremendously so you have to be prepared and ready to go,” said Max Andrews, the University of Maine-bound end from John Bapst of Bangor. “But after the first day here it felt like we’ve been playing together for a year. We all get along really well and we’re getting the work done.
“The guys are definitely paying attention, and while it takes some time to get used to everything, it’s coming along really well.”