June 24, 2018
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Coaches were right, Western C football will be a grind

By Randy Whitehouse, Sun Journal

Dirigo may be 3-0, but the Cougars are aging their coach in dog years with every win.

“The kids are driving me crazy. They’re making me nervous. I’m not going to have any hair left,” a smiling Dave Crutchfield said after the Cougars pulled off their third comeback win in as many weeks last Friday against Poland.

Crutchfield won’t be the only follicly challenged Campbell Conference Class C coach by Halloween if the first three weeks of the season are any indication. The league is filled with teams that will have their fans making plans for Fitzpatrick Stadium the Saturday before Thanksgiving at one moment and reaching for the antacid the next. It’s got teams who for the longest time couldn’t even get a whiff of the playoffs now picking up the scent of a championship. It’s got teams with championship-studded histories stifling early-season hiccups.

Let’s start with Crutchfield’s Cougars, one of three unbeaten teams left in the conference. The performance hasn’t been nearly as perfect as the record. They trailed going into the fourth quarter against undermanned Lisbon and Winslow teams and late in the third quarter against winless Poland.

Stocked with veterans from its championship baseball and basketball teams and a number of state champion wrestlers, the Cougars know when not to panic. The defense, which has been gashed for big plays, has buckled down in the second half of all three games and forced big turnovers. The offense, already explosive with steady QB Brett Whittemore, speedy tailback Spencer Trenoweth and tough fullback Thomas Barnett, got a big boost last week with the return of sophomore fullback Tyler Frost (preseason ankle injury), a downhill runner to complement Trenoweth’s big-play ability.

Dirigo hosts winless Telstar Friday. Assuming they can get by the Rebels and Maranacook holds up their end against Boothbay, both teams will be taking perfect records into next Friday night’s meeting at Harlow Park.

The Maranacook Black Bears got their first scare last week with a one-point win over two-time defending state champion Yarmouth. Victories like that show how far Maranacook has come from its developmental league roots. Some thought it might take a step back after graduating conference player of the year Luke Emery, but the Bears know they’re close to establishing a new identity aside from being the school that Ricky Gibson’s selfless gesture made famous.

That’s not a bad identity to have, incidentally, especially considering just a few years ago Traip Academy would have taken on any other identity that didn’t include a losing streak. The Rangers lost 51 in a row from 2000 to 2006. In the slow, steady climb from respectability to playoff team to contender to favorite since then, they haven’t lost the chip on the shoulder that came with that infamy.

The Rangers feel like they are on an island down in Kittery, overlooked by the media and traditional conference powers to the north. With their physical style, they make those who dare take them on after a long bus ride suffer the consequences. If they can beat Yarmouth and Boothbay (a fairly safe assumption since they’ve yet to give up a single point), and if they can stay healthy (they only have 18 or 19 players), they will be the second unbeaten team Dirigo encounters. That game is in Kittery on Oct. 6.

Those matchups (Maranacook and Traip don’t meet in the regular season) mean that the upper crust will have sorted itself out somewhat by the middle of October. The next tier will be a chaotic mess long after that.

The convincing wins by Lisbon and Winslow last week just added to the tumult. Both teams got some key contributors back from academic probation and showed why they were considered dark horses in the preseason.

Winslow’s gain was Oak Hill’s loss. The Raiders got knocked from the unbeaten ranks by the Black Raiders. A little early-season wake-up call never hurt anybody. I’d be shocked if it didn’t make make them better in the long run (for a tough second-half schedule).

Then there’s Yarmouth, which is a far cry from the last two years but also, as last week’s narrow loss to Maranacook showed, vastly improved from its opening week loss at Oak Hill. Freeport looks feisty, too. The Falcons went to Traip, got shut out, 31-0, by the Rangers, then insisted they could play with them. Their second-half schedule is the opposite of Oak Hill’s, so we’ll be hearing from them again, maybe as soon as this Saturday at Lisbon.

We haven’t even mentioned 2-1 Old Orchard Beach or 1-2 Winthrop yet, or even winless Poland has put Dirigo and Winslow through serious scares already. Whether they make the playoffs or not, one or more from that trio is going to make those who do survive and advance earn it.

During the preseason, several coaches declared this would be the most competitive Campbell Conference we’ve seen in years. Whoever emerges on top will have survived a meat grinder. Reporters hear that kind of hyperbole every year. But it sure looks like they’ve got it right this time.

And their reward? Much thinner hair by November.

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