FAIRFIELD, Maine — The Eastern Maine Class A football world has been ruled for the last seven years by Bulldog Pride.
Five times during that span Lawrence High School went through the regular season undefeated, leading to four regional titles and the 2006 state crown.
But school enrollment trends in blue-collar communities such as Fairfield have followed the steady decline in manufacturing jobs throughout Maine for a generation, and after competing against much larger schools in recent years the Bulldogs finally have followed their enrollment down to Class B in the state’s newly aligned four-class football system.
They’re not alone.
Four other schools that competed in Eastern Maine Class A football last year — Cony of Augusta, Messalonskee of Oakland, Brunswick and Skowhegan — also have moved down a class.
That presents some new, formidable challenges for Mt. Blue of Farmington, Hampden Academy, Brewer and Gardiner, the four schools that have remained in Class B from a year ago.
Eight of the nine teams on the new-look Eastern B qualified for postseason play a year ago, and only six teams will advance beyond the eight-game regular season this fall.
Lawrence, the two-time defending Eastern A champion, will field its least experienced team since John Hersom became the Bulldogs’ head coach in 2005.
“We only have eight seniors, but we’ve got a good number of juniors and a good number of sophomores so we’re working those juniors and sophomores into it where they didn’t get much varsity experience at all last year with that big senior class,” said Hersom. “We’re really proud of what they’ve been doing so far.”
Senior James Leathers and junior Cody Martin competed for the starting quarterback spot during preseason, with senior Ethan Powers on track to anchor the Lawrence ground game.
“The strength of our offense right now is to control the football and get our line executing and getting our single returning varsity running back Ethan Powers as many carries as we can and keep moving those chains,” said Hersom, whose team finished last season 11-1 after falling to Thornton Academy of Saco in the Class A state final.
“With that kind of philosophy offensively and with Ethan and our halfbacks and our quarterbacks playing smart, I think we’re going to be able to continue to move the ball.”
For the first time in several years Lawrence doesn’t rank as the preseason favorite in its division.
That honor this year may be shared by Cony of Augusta and defending Class B state champion Mt. Blue of Farmington.
Cony (8-3 last year) will attempt to build on its best season in two decades, when the Rams advanced to the Eastern A final before dropping a 20-12 decision to Lawrence.
Coach Robby Vachon’s club features a spread offense led by senior quarterback Ben Lucas, who passed for a school-record 32 touchdowns last fall.
Mt. Blue of Farmington (12-0), a Class A program until 2011, suffered significant graduation losses but returns 14 seniors after finishing last season as the state’s only undefeated team.
The line of scrimmage figures to be a strength for the Cougars with Cam Farrington, Tyler Sennick, Anthony Franchetti, Colin Richards and Cody Vining expected to play prominent roles.
Messalonskee (6-4) has a new coach in former Morse of Bath, Livermore Falls and Lawrence head man Brad Bishop, and the Eagles will no longer rely on the double-wing offense and instead run a mix of wing-T and shotgun formations along with a 4-4 defense designed to deal with the increasing number of spread offensive formations both within the division and statewide.
Junior Jake Dexter will switch from wide receiver to quarterback, while fullback-tight end Robert Schlosser and running back Dylan Briggs also will be offensive keys.
Brunswick (7-3) graduated a 2,000-yard rusher in Jared Jensen, but coach Dan Cooper’s club has been a consistent contender in the Eastern A ranks in recent years.
Skowhegan (4-5) contended for an Eastern A playoff berth until late in the season last year, and the Indians figure to be even more competitive as they employ a spread offense for the second year under coach Matt Friedman after making the conversion from the double wing.
“We saw Skowhegan quite a bit over the summer with the 7-on-7s and they look very improved throwing the football,” Hersom said. “We saw Brunswick as well and they’ve got some big athletes we’re going to have to be ready for. Brunswick has been at the top of our PTC league and I think Skowhegan is ready to make that comeback to get back into the playoff picture.”
Hampden Academy (7-2) is coming off five straight postseason appearances, and the Broncos hope to extend that streak under new head coach Kevin Canty.
Senior quarterback Matt Martin will be a focal point of the offense, with an additional boost coming from senior wide receiver Austin Spencer, a transfer from John Bapst of Bangor who passed for more than 1,000 yards and also was his team’s leading rusher last fall as the Crusaders advanced to the Eastern Maine Class C final.
Senior Dan Marquis will be another receiving threat, while classmates Cam Prescott, John Chen and Jack Barteaux will play key roles up front.
Brewer (5-4) is coming off back-to-back playoff berths, but the changing nature of Eastern B and the youthfulness of this year’s roster — the Witches have just nine seniors — could challenge coach Don Farnham’s team.
Brewer does have four seniors starting along the line of scrimmage in Adam Lufkin, Calvin Patterson, Joshua Lugdon and John Bouchard who will work to ignite the running game and protect sophomore quarterback Logan Rogerson, who stepped in to run Brewer’s pistol offense midway through last season.
“The offensive line is our strength this year,” said Farnham. “We’ve got two kids [Lufkin and Patterson] who if they have a good year and continue to improve are definitely people I think colleges would be looking at because they have something I can’t coach, which is size.
“We have some seniors on the line, which is what you want to have for a foundation, and then we have some young skill guys who are pretty skilled but just young, If we can get them to come along we’ll be OK. We don’t have a lot of depth, but if we can keep people healthy it will be an interesting year.”
The smallest school in the division is Gardiner, which had 92 fewer students than the next smallest school — Brewer — on the enrollment date used for the most recent reclassification process.
The Tigers (6-4) traditionally have been a formidable fixture in the Class B ranks, but with just two starters returning may be in a rebuilding mode this fall.