WATERVILLE, Maine — The reconfiguration of Maine high school football to encompass four classes this fall for the first time since 1986 will in many cases create new rivalries among schools of suddenly similar enrollments.
In a few cases, it will renew storied rivalries of the past.
One of the more notable examples of the latter will take place in the new Eastern Maine Class C where the “Battle of the Bridge” between Waterville and Winslow could have postseason ramifications for the first time since 2010.
Winslow won that matchup 27-7, marking the sixth time in their last eight countable meetings that the Black Raiders have defeated the Purple Panthers before dropping from Class B to Class C in 2011.
Waterville leads the overall series 49-29-4, not counting the Purple Panthers’ 64-14 exhibition-game victory during the 2012 preseason.
And with Waterville among seven schools shifting from Class B to Eastern C this fall and Winslow moving from Western C to Eastern C under the new alignment, their meeting on the final Saturday of the regular season may have meaning far beyond the shared history between the programs.
And it may not be the only time those two teams square off this fall.
Waterville, Winslow, Belfast and reigning Class C state champion Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft are considered the favorites in a newly formed division where parity is one of the common threads of preseason conversations.
“Top to bottom it should be a strong conference,” said veteran Mount Desert Island head coach Mark Shields. “It will be interesting to see how it works out.”
Veteran Waterville poised for title run
Waterville’s (6-5, Eastern B finalist in 2012) late-season surge last fall has carried over to the current preseason, with the Purple Panthers’ 62-player roster one of the program’s largest in many years.
“We have a pretty good core coming back,” said 24th-year Waterville head coach Frank Knight.
Much of Waterville’s strength resides up front, where seniors Luke Knight and Duncan Works and juniors Ben Cox, Alex Danner and Corey Huerfano will work both sides of the line of scrimmage, aided by senior end Troy Gurski and junior end Shahzaib Khan.
Two seniors, Brian Bellows and Aidan FitzGerald, are expected to see playing time at quarterback, while junior Cam Thomas and sophomore Trever Gray will work at running back. Senior Jordhan Levine is a top receiving threat as well as a proven kicker.
“Optimistic is a good word,” said coach Knight about the mood of his team as the regular season approaches. “We are optimistic.”
Winslow seeks to build on near-miss
Winslow (10-2, Class C state finalist) nearly won it all last fall, rallying from a 22-7 deficit before falling to Foxcroft 22-20 in the Class C championship game.
Coach Mike Siviski’s club figures to be right back in the mix again.
“They’re going to be a tough team,” said Old Town coach Nick Arthers. “They will be one of the good teams in Class C this year, but there’s going to be real good competition around the league.”
Winslow is well stocked in the backfield, with bruising senior fullback Zach Guptil and junior tailback Dylan Hapworth a power-packed rushing duo behind junior quarterback Bobby Chenard.
“Guptil’s a force,” said Belfast coach Chris Bartlett, whose Lions open the regular season at Winslow on Saturday. “He’s a big kid, and the tailback [Hapworth] is very quick.”
The Black Raiders also have a top-flight end in 6-foot-6 junior Justin Martin while senior Aaron Lint, a two-time state champion in wrestling, keys Winslow’s line play.
Hapworth also is one of the region’s better placekickers, giving the Black Raiders an extra dimension on special teams.
“Winslow reminds me of Winslow of the old days where they had one or two very good athletes in each phase of the game, running, blocking and tackling, and because of that they can be very balanced,” said Bartlett.
Third-year starters to lead Belfast
Belfast’s (5-5, Class B semifinalist) 2012 season is best remembered for its stunning last-play, first-round upset of second-ranked Leavitt of Turner Center in the Pine Tree Conference playoffs.
And while that win provides great memories, it’s seen at this point as merely a starting point for things to come.
“We’re working to build off that,” said Bartlett. “But what the kids are saying is that it’s not so much building off that as they want to create their own story this year.”
Belfast’s 56-player roster includes numerous third-year starters, including three senior running backs, a senior fullback, three seniors at tight end and wide receiver and a third-year starter at quarterback.
That group is led by QB-DB Zach Collier, HB-DBs Greg Clark and Mike McFadden, FB-LB Baxter Smith and SE-DE Korey Doolan.
Another third-year starter, LT-DE Mike Reynolds, is the lone senior back on the line, but a talented sophomore class is expected to help fill the vacancies.
“The kids are very excited,” said Bartlett. “They’ve been champing at the bit all summer to get after it. They really feel better about football, more excited.”
Foxcroft embraces new challenges
Foxcroft (11-1, Class C state champion) went from being the top team in the smallest-school classification a year ago to the smallest school by enrollment in Eastern C this fall.
But that likely won’t deter one of Maine’s trademark football programs from remaining a top contender regardless of the opposition.
“It’s a different feeling now,” said fifth-year Foxcroft head coach Danny White. “But we’re excited to play our new schedule because it certainly brings a number of challenges. It’s a whole new slate, a whole new beginning.”
Among Foxcroft’s graduates were four players now competing in the collegiate ranks, including 2012 LTC player of the year Donnie Boyer, now at Carnegie Mellon University.
But returners to the 40-player roster include senior quarterback Hunter Law, junior halfback Peter Boyer (moving from fullback), two-way senior end Kolby Kendall and senior fullback-linebacker Corey Bjornsen, while sophomore Hunter Smith is an emerging threat at wide receiver.
The Ponies are less experienced up front, with center Craig Chambers the lone returning starter on the offensive line.
“Every year, everything has to start with the offensive line,” said White. “You have to be able to create holes and protect your quarterback, and we graduated four of our five guys there so that’s our biggest question mark.”
MDI aims to extend playoff streak
Mount Desert Island (4-5, Eastern B quarterfinalist) came within an eyelash of knocking off top-ranked Mt. Blue of Farmington — the eventual 2012 Class B state champion — in the opening round of last year’s playoffs with a performance symbolizing the Trojans’ wing-T offense at its ball-controlling best.
Coach Mark Shields’ club will have its entire starting offensive backfield returning in an effort to pick up where it left off.
Senior Jon Phelps is back at quarterback, joined by junior fullback Sandy Henggeler, senior left halfback Teagan Candage and sophomore right halfback Taner Bickford.
“All of them have different styles of running,” said Shields.
Where MDI will be rebuilding is along the line of scrimmage where graduation took a heavy toll.
“We lost some pretty big boys up front,” said Shields. “It does help to have an experienced backfield, though, because you can teach line play a little quicker.”
The Trojans, 38 players strong, will need to use ball control to aid what Shields describes as an inexperienced defense.
MDI will be seeking its eighth straight postseason appearance.
Young Madison-Carrabec squad not lacking experience
Madison-Carrabec (2-6) enters its fifth season as a cooperative entry, and second-year head coach Scott Franzose is looking forward to the Bulldogs’ positioning in Eastern C.
“What I like about it is there’s a lot of parity, a lot of competitive balance,” he said, “and there’s the chance to play some familiar opponents and the chance to develop some new rivalries.”
Madison-Carrabec will rely on a mix of seniors and juniors to spark its pursuit of a postseason berth.
Two of the team’s eight seniors, TE-DE Levi Murray and Chris Hayden, a linebacker and H-back, will play leadership roles, as will junior Cody Soucier, the incumbent quarterback and starting free safety.
Other catalysts will be junior HB Jordan Curtis and junior OG-NG Jared Lightbody.
“We’re a team that continues to fly under the radar,” said Franzose. “Our goal is the Big 10 championship. That’s our goal every year.”
Old Town hopes familiarity breeds success
Old Town (1-7) enters its second season under Arthers, and the Coyotes aspire to take a significant step forward.
One reason for enthusiasm around the program is the work to refurbish the school’s Victory Field athletic complex, which includes the football facility. Early stages of the project are being completed, with a later phase slated to include the installation of an artificial-turf field.
“We’re starting to turn the page,” said Arthers. “People are getting excited about Old Town football again, especially with the new stadium and new track at the school.”
Another reason for optimism, Arthers said, stems from the growing familiarity between the coaches and the 40 players on the roster.
“I think we’re a much better team,” he said. “We’ve got a year of my offense under our belt, and we’ve got a better grasp of what we’re doing on the field.”
The Coyotes will be led by senior Zach Bartlett, a key along the offensive line and the defensive playcaller from his inside linebacker slot. Senior end Tyler Wengrzynck is another leader up front, while sophomore Jake Jarvis steps in at quarterback and junior Braden Upshaw looms as the featured running back.
Shepardson leads Hermon attack
Hermon (5-3) becomes eligible for postseason play for the first time after playing down in the former Class C as a developmental program the last two years.
“The goal is to make the playoffs,” said Hawks head coach Ken Frederick. “We’d like to win all of our games, but realistically if we can go .500 we can go to the playoffs.”
Hermon’s varsity roster numbers 35, slightly down from 42 a year ago.
But the Hawks feature the LTC’s leading rusher in 2012, junior halfback David Shepardson, who gained 1,416 yards and scored 21 touchdowns while averaging 8.1 yards per carry.
“David is one of those kids who during the offseason works really hard,” said Frederick. “He runs track, lifts weights and really takes care of himself.
“He’s very, very confident, and he’s all about football.”
Shepardson, senior quarterback Josh Wilson and junior wideout Kyle Barnes will be among those working behind a youthful line anchored by junior Bryce Hieftje.
New coach, new spirit at Nokomis
Fifty-three players have turned out for football at Nokomis of Newport, a healthy increase over previous years even though the Warriors opted to play down a class by enrollment for the next two seasons and won’t be playoff-eligible during that span.
That roster includes 10 seniors and a significant contingent of juniors who will have graduated by the time Nokomis will be able to pursue a postseason berth again in 2015.
“Those seniors obviously are not going to the playoffs, so for them to come out and give everything they have for eight games this season is special,” said first-year head coach Matt O’Connell, a former assistant coach at John Bapst of Bangor who teaches in the Newport-area school system.
“It takes a special kid who loves football to want to be a part of that, and that goes for the juniors as well.”
Several of those seniors will play key on-field roles for the Warriors, including QB-DB Dominic Erickson, OT-DT Jeff Walker, TE-DE Jake Winslow and OL-DE Rusty Wilson. Juniors Noah Kershner (RB-LB), Jacob Nichols (OL-DL) and sophomore RB-LB Dylan Thibodeau also are expected to be impact players.
“There’s just a good vibe around the program right now,” said O’Connell. “The kids are excited about what they’re doing, and I’m excited about being here with them.”
Camden Hills strives for competitiveness
Camden Hills of Rockport is in a situation similar to Nokomis, using the next two seasons in Class C to reinvigorate its program before likely moving back to Class B, its designated class by enrollment.
And while the Windjammers won’t be playoff-eligible, they see an opportunity to make a statement each week during the regular season.
“We basically want to compete every week and grow the program,” said second-year head coach Steve Wadsworth. “We look at every week as being a playoff game, and we want to beat the big boys.”
The Camden Hills roster, numbering in the low 30s, features a blend of upperclassmen and younger players.
The upperclassmen are led by senior RB-LB Isaac Young, senior TE-DE Connor Graffam, senior lineman Alex Switzer and junior lineman Kaylo Littlejohn.
Leading the underclassmen is sophomore quarterback Nick Rozsahegyi, who is back behind center after earning playing time as a freshman.