BELFAST, Maine — The Belfast Lions hope a year’s worth of experience will take them a long way this fall — all the way back to the Pine Tree Conference Class B playoffs.
Coach Chris Bartlett’s club narrowly missed a second-straight trip to postseason play in 2011 despite a roster that included just four seniors.
But that team, dominated by underclassmen, endured the growing pains of a 3-5 campaign and has evolved this year into a 56-player roster with considerably more playing time to draw upon.
“I like the enthusiasm this year,” said Bartlett. “Last year was definitely a struggle for us, we played a lot of sophomores and juniors and while the juniors were coming along, the sophomores were still young kids.
“But I could kind of see the team beginning to turn the corner toward the end of the school year in terms of maturity, and then we had a record number of kids in the weight room last summer, 30 to 40 kids in there four days a week in the morning.”
The recently completed preseason offered even more opportunity for growth within the team, with an unusually high number of double sessions because the Lions’ regular-season opener against Gardiner was played before classes began.
“With the number of kids we had it was good that we had the extra practices because we had so many kids that we had to get so many reps each,” said Bartlett. “And with the number of quality reps we were able to get, we were able to spend more time with mechanics and the basics.”
Belfast hopes to avoid the injury bug that cost it seven starters during the first two games of the 2011 season, but the Lions will be boosted in the depth department by up to six different players — including senior fullback Travis Tufo and junior halfback Greg Clark — that can handle the running back duties in the flex-bone offense behind junior Zach Collier, a returning starter at quarterback.
“We’re at a pretty good point with the offense,” said Bartlett. “Other than a few adjustments during the course of a game or something special for a specific team, we’ve got a pretty good package in.”
How that offense, which scored 61 points during an exhibition-game victory over Class C Mount View of Thorndike, fares in the deep and competitive PTC Class B ranks will depend on an offensive front that features three senior captains in Steve Paul, Peter Kelley and Wyatt Roberts.
“It’s all going to come down to the line and how it jells,” said Bartlett. “Those three guys all have at least two years of experience. They’re big kids and they’ve been through the battles. As sophomores Wyatt and Peter were both on the line for the [PTC] semifinal game so they know what that’s like.”
Bartlett said his team also needs to improve defensively if it is to secure a playoff berth come late October, but he likes the attitude his players have maintained throughout the preseason.
“We’ve got high hopes, but we had high hopes last year and the year before that when we made the semifinals,” he said. “We just have to go out and play football.
“We need to take it one game at a time. We know it won’t be easy, but we want to continue to play hard and to play that Belfast-type of football where we keep plugging away and peak at the right time.”
Gardiner beat Belfast 27-6 in their opener Friday night.
2011 result: 3-5
Head coach: Chris Bartlett, fourth year
Key players: Steve Paul, Sr., OG-LB, Capt.; Peter Kelley, Sr., OG-LB, Capt.; Wyatt Roberts, Sr., OT-DT, Capt.; Travis Tufo, Sr., FB-LB, Capt.; Carl Dodge, Sr., HB-LB; Zach Collier, Jr., QB-FS; Greg Clark, Jr., HB-CB
Outlook: The Lions flew under the PTC Class B radar throughout preseason but with their added experience they may have a playoff berth in their future if they can minimize mistakes and injuries. Belfast also must survive a grueling start to its schedule, with games against Gardiner, three-time defending conference champion Leavitt of Turner Center and Hampden Academy in the first four weeks of the season.