BUCKSPORT, Maine — Enthusiasm was so high for the start of the high school football season in this proud milltown that the Bucksport Golden Bucks couldn’t wait to get going.
So they began their first preseason practice at the earliest possible moment, just after midnight on the opening day of the fall sports season, August 19.
And while that “midnight madness” session at Carmichael Field may not have produced immediate results, that eagerness may be indicative of the confidence the team and its followers will take into the 2013 season.
“The expectations are high,” said Joel Sankey, who enters his 20th year as the Golden Bucks’ head coach. “I know the community’s expectations are very high.”
And there’s good reason.
Just four players graduated from last year’s squad, which finished 7-3 overall and earned a trip to the LTC semifinals.
“Last year we were very young and kind of under the radar,” said Sankey. “This year we’re not under the radar.”
Defending LTC and state champion Foxcroft Academy, which avenged its only loss last fall with its semifinal victory over the Golden Bucks, won’t be a championship obstacle in the division this season. While the Golden Bucks and nine other LTC teams were shifted to Eastern D through the addition of a fourth football class in Maine for the first time since 1986, Foxcroft was moved up by enrollment to the new Class C.
“I’ve got very mixed feelings about Foxcroft going,” said veteran Orono coach Bob Sinclair. “We obviously didn’t have much success against them lately, and hats off to them because of the success they had. But they’re traditionally an LTC team, and I’ll always think of them that way.”
Orono should be another contender for a deep postseason run in Class D with the duo of Cam and Christian Mowrer back for their senior seasons, while John Bapst will be seeking its sixth trip to a regional final in the last seven years.
There’s also optimism elsewhere in the division, which sends its top six teams to postseason play.
Dexter is coming off its best season in a generation, while Washington Academy of East Machias is poised for some football stability in its third year as a varsity program.
Stearns of Millinocket, the smallest football-playing school in the state with 185 students, is light on numbers but typically second-to-none in competitiveness, while Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield remains young but will be fielding more experienced youth this season.
Mount View of Thorndike and Mattanawcook Academy are looking to new coaches to breathe new life in those programs, with former Dexter and Nokomis of Newport head man Haggie Pratt now at Mount View while Bill McCarthy assumes command at MA, his alma mater.
And Ellsworth-Sumner enters its second varsity season not eligible for the playoffs but hopeful of continued growth.
“It seems like every team has got something to hang their hat on, something to feel good about to start the season,” said Stearns coach Chris Preble.
Bucksport returns virtually all of its ballcarriers, including junior quarterback Matthew Stewart, backs Asher Bowden, Nic Bishop and Nate Gray, and speedy wide receiver-defensive back Josh Gray.
They’ll work behind a line that includes veterans KP Hilaire, Alex Dyer and Tyler Maguire.
“We have some really good skill kids,” said Sankey. “We’ve got kids who can run the ball and kids who can catch the ball. It’s the coach’s assignment to figure out where and how to utilize them all.”
Orono (7-3 and an LTC semifinalist last year) also returns its backfield largely intact, though Christian Mowrer — a two-time 1,000-yard rusher — missed the preseason while recovering from an automobile accident.
Cam Mowrer and Collin Clement join Christian Mowrer in an Oklahoma T formation directed by quarterback Chad Orn, though like Bucksport the Red Riots will be introducing some new starters along the line of scrimmage.
“Expectations are what they are, we still have to put in the work to improve each week, and so far I’ve seen good signs,” said Sinclair. “We’re going to be right in the hunt if we can stay away from injuries,” said Sinclair.
John Bapst (8-2, LTC finalist in ’12) may have more vacancies to fill than it has in recent years, with 2012 Gaziano defensive lineman of the year Kurt Massey and a bevy of backs among the graduates and leading rusher and 1,000-yard passer Austin Spencer transferring to Hampden Academy.
“We graduated a good group of seniors who had played for several years in a row,” said John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell. “We lost a lot of game experience. I like our talent this year, but it’s young.”
Stepping in at quarterback will be sophomore Spencer Baron, while senior center-middle linebacker Nick Jordan anchors the interior of the Crusaders’ offense and defense. Two-way lineman Patrick Leonard also provides John Bapst a difference maker as a place-kicker and punter.
“We have the chance to be pretty successful,” said O’Connell, “but I think it’s going to be a work in progress, particularly early in the season as some of our younger guys get some reps.”
Dexter (6-3, LTC quarterfinalist in ’12) made just its second postseason appearance since 1995 last fall.
The program then had to endure a hazing incident in the aftermath of that success, but head coach Kevin Armstrong and a roster of more than 40 players have regrouped and are hoping to build on last year’s on-field effort.
“The kids had a really good work ethic during the summer, with weight training Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 7-on-7 play on Thursdays,” said Armstrong. “We probably had 75 percent participation.”
Senior Trevor Fogarty provides Dexter a playmaking quarterback, with junior Daytona Gould his top receiving threat and senior Cameron Ross also expected to figure prominently behind a line led by seniors Spencer Fitzgerald and Chris King.
“They expect to be a top team and are preparing to play that way,” said Armstrong.
Stearns (4-5, LTC quarterfinalist in ’12) returns just one senior with previous high school playing experience, meaning the Minutemen will rely heavily on younger players.
“We graduated a good group of guys who were leaders, and a lot of them were four-year players,” said Preble. “We’ve got the one returning senior and a few other seniors who haven’t played in several years, if at all, but we’ve got a big junior class who will work with the seniors to keep things going.”
That returning nucleus features junior running back-linebacker Marc Morneault, running back Mitchell Bradford, and linemen Tristan Santerre, Dmitri Carrier and Jake Williams, the lone returning senior.
“It’s a lot like the last few years,” said Preble. “We don’t have great numbers, but we’ve got some great kids with some experience who play hard, and if we can stay healthy we can be competitive.”
Washington Academy (3-6, LTC quarterfinalist in ’12) has its biggest roster to date with nearly 30 players out for preseason practice and the likelihood of several additions once school starts and their jobs lobstering or raking blueberries end for the summer.
“We’re at the point that for the first time we’ve got a core of 13 or 14 kids who are experienced, and the freshmen coming into the program now have two years of middle school football under their belts,” said Raiders’ coach Barry Terrill.
Senior Micah McBrine is the starting quarterback role after a solid off-season, while Ellic Smith anchors the ground game after rushing for more than 900 yards as a sophomore last fall. Senior Fred MacLean moves from quarterback to tight end this fall to capitalize on his pass-catching ability, while another receiving threat will be 6-foot-5-inch junior Austin Seavey, a basketball standout at the school who is playing football for the first time.
Anchoring WA’s line play will be Dakota Cates-Wright and John Curry.
“We made the playoffs last year as the seventh seed, but you need to be among the top six this year,” said Terrill. “Our goal is to make the playoffs, but we know it’s not going to be easy.”
Mattanawcook (2-7, LTC quarterfinalist in ’12) will look toward successful strategies from the program’s history in an effort to elevate its competitive level.
The Lynx feature a major weapon in senior quarterback Trysten Pelkey, but one of McCarthy’s goals is to diversify the ground game in an effort to protect his offensive leader.
“We’re not as much of a speed team, so we’ll line up under center in the I and use some split backs,” said McCarthy, whose roster includes just five seniors. “We’ll try to utilize the athleticism of our quarterback and give him some different looks.
“Our primary focus will be to use our big line up front to establish our run game.”
Elijah Susen, Garrett Neal and junior Tanner McCarthy will anchor MA’s line play while seniors A.J. McEachern and Zach Perry will join Pelkey in the backfield.
“We want to do what we do well and be able to establish the run first and make the focus on defense to stop the run and go from there,” said McCarthy.
MCI (0-8) has 42 players out for the football, its biggest preseason roster in recent years.
“We’re still young,” said Huskies coach Tom Bertrand. “We’re going to be playing a lot of juniors and sophomores.”
MCI features senior Briar Bussell, a two-way lineman and fourth-year varsity player, as well as fellow lineman and classmate Gus McWilliams and wingback-defensive back Tanner Littlefield.
Heading up the juniors is running back Jonathan Santiago, who rushed for 871 yards last fall, along with wide receiver Austin Tolman, tight end Mitchell Hallee, fullback-linebacker Eric Hathaway and guard-linebackers Jimmy Hall and Nick Deckert.
Sophomore Greg Vigue returns at quarterback after seeing some duty at the end of last season.
“It’s going to be a pretty competitive league,” said Bertrand. “But with Foxcroft stepping up to ‘C’ it presents an opportunity for some of the teams in the middle of the pack or that’s been struggling a little to get one of those playoff spots.”
Mount View (2-6) plans to use its size to establish a balanced attack.
“It’s going to be 50-50,” said Pratt. “We want to run the football, but we’ve got to be able to pass the ball when we want to pass.”
Mount View’s line will feature seniors Chris and Clint Spaulding, Elijah Wilson and Ben West, along with sophomore Casey Spaulding.
That group will front a backfield that includes senior quarterback Kenny McGray, running backs Jack Axsom and Matt Wheeler, tight end Tyler Ripley and perhaps the Mustangs’ top playmaker, Steven Davis, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound wingback.
“We’ve really got the makings of a very well-balanced offense,” said Pratt. “The defense is a work in progress.”
Ellsworth-Sumner (0-8) experienced some growing pains during its first varsity season, but the Eagles hope to use that base as a springboard for further progress in Year 2.
“We’re definitely well ahead of where we were at this time last year,” said Ellsworth-Sumner coach Duane Crawford.
The roster remains young, but upperclassmen expected to play major roles include senior quarterback Stephen Cowles, fullback Michael Garland, lineman Keith Robinson and wide receiver Tyler Getchell.
“When you get down to it, it’s football and these kids want to play,” said Crawford. “They’re eager to learn, and they’re starting to figure out as time goes on what they need to do.”