DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Monday morning’s routine was just that, a routine that has stood for years as players filed into the locker room just before their first preseason football practice at Foxcroft Academy.
Weigh-in. Check. Locker assignment. Check. Pick up helmet. Check. Grab a practice jersey. Check. Head out onto the practice field, and let the conditioning begin. Check.
“We’re just excited to start this week and get some things put in,” said fifth-year Foxcroft head coach Danny White, who guided the Ponies to the Class C state title last fall. “We’ve got a good group of athletes back from last year’s state championship team, and we obviously need some kids to step up because now it’s their turn and the door is now open.”
But the Class C football world Foxcroft will rejoin in its season opener against Hermon on Sept. 6 is nothing like the world it left behind last November when the Ponies left Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland with the state championship trophy in hand.
The expansion of Maine high school football from three classes to four for the first time since 1986 has left Foxcroft and Hermon as the lone holdovers in Eastern Maine Class C.
The other 10 LTC schools in Eastern C a year ago now make up the new Eastern D.
That means nearly all of White’s scouting reports from recent years are of no value as Foxcroft approaches its new season.
The only new Class C teams the Ponies have played in recent years are Winslow — in last year’s state final — and Waterville and Belfast, both in preseason contests.
“Even though Hermon was in our league the last two years we didn’t play them,” said White. “We’ve seen some film, but film sometimes doesn’t do a team justice. You can pick up some tendencies and see them play and that’s important, but it’s different to get a feel on the field.
“We played Winslow last year, we’ve played Waterville in preseason at least the last four years and also Belfast in the past so we have a feel for how they want to play, but none of these kids we have here do with the exception of Waterville and Winslow.”
That reality will place a premium on developing accurate scouting reports as quickly as possible.
“It’s required a little more homework so far, and it’s going to require coaches to be really dialed in on learning our opposition,” White said. “All in all we’ve got our hands full trying to learn eight new opponents.”
White shares that challenge with 75 other head coaches around the state, as all of the previous divisions have been adapted to accommodate a new small-school Class D in an effort to improve the competitive balance between the largest and smallest schools in each class.
The new Class A alignment restores Bangor High School to a schedule similar to what the Rams played until the mid-1980s, including matchups with several greater Portland programs.
After opening at home against Edward Little of Auburn, Bangor’s slate has games against Scarborough, Deering of Portland, Portland High School, Windham, Lewiston, Cheverus of Portland and Oxford Hills of South Paris.
Only EL, Lewiston and Oxford Hills competed with Bangor in what was Eastern Maine Class A in 2012, so scouting this fall will take on an even more southerly route for Rams’ head coach Mark Hackett and his staff.
“We used to cross over and play a few of them, but other than that unless it was in a state championship game we haven’t played them,” said Hackett. “And you can’t not be prepared, so every time we get a chance to go we always go and visually see them. We’ve never not done that since I can remember because we can’t look at our players and say, ‘They played last night but we didn’t go,’ and then they have a kid running down the field catching jump balls and we weren’t ready for it.
“I just don’t think you can do that. It’s a lot of miles and a lot of gas, but it’s just what we do,” he said.
Many teams may have additional familiarity with new opponents through the proliferation of seven-on-seven passing leagues around the state.
Foxcroft has played in the Hampden Academy summer league against such new regular-season opponents as Old Town and Belfast, while Bangor has traveled to Portland for the last three summers to compete in a league that includes all the traditional southern Maine Class A programs.
“It definitely helps, I think it takes away from the eye-widening experience of looking at a kid for the first time and saying, ‘Wow, he’s big,’ or ‘He’s quick,’” said Hackett. “You’ve seen them, so you’re familiar with them and when you show up to play that team again it doesn’t take a half to get ready.”
Still, with the regular season still nearly three weeks away the priority of the moment isn’t about opposing teams yet.
For now, the key regardless of class is self-improvement.
“We’re just really excited to get back on the field,” said White. “There’s been a lot of talk about football in this off-season and a lot of change in regards to the landscape of the class structure, but right now we’re just excited to play football and go from here.”