BANGOR, Maine — And so it begins this weekend, a different kind of high school football season in the Pine Tree State.
Not different in how the game is played, but different in how the 76 football-playing schools are divided.
The gradual growth of the sport in Maine and a resulting influx of new programs since the turn of the millenium has prompted the addition of a fourth football class for the first time since 1986.
Just 34 schools are in the same alphabetical class this fall as they were a year ago — with 16 of those in Class A.
Of the 42 schools that have moved, 20 were Class C teams now in the new Class D, but 22 others dropped down a class by enrollment.
The ultimate goal of all those programs remains the same, to win a state championship in 2½ months. The Class B final will be played at the University of Maine in Orono on Friday, Nov. 22, followed the next day by the A, C and D finals at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
Edward Little (2-7 in 2012) vs. Bangor (5-4), 7 p.m. Saturday at Husson University, Bangor: Both teams are eyeing playoff berths in the new Eastern Maine Class A, and a quick start could prove pivotal toward developing momentum for the challenges ahead.
Bangor features senior quarterback-defensive back Xavier Lewis, back after a year at Lawrence of Fairfield, while Edward Little is expected to utilize a pass-oriented pistol offense against the Rams’ defense.
“They’re wide-open, and they’re going to make some big plays,” said Bangor coach Mark Hackett. “We just have to keep our composure.”
Bangor is hosting the Red Eddies at the Winkin Complex on the Husson campus while a new grandstand and press box is being installed at their usual home field, Cameron Stadium. That work is scheduled to be completed late next week, which would enable the Rams to play their next scheduled home game against Deering of Portland there on Saturday, Sept. 21.
Brunswick (7-3) vs. Brewer (5-4), 7 p.m. Friday at Doyle Field, Brewer: Brunswick is one of five Eastern Maine Class A teams that have shifted to Class B under the new alignment, and while the Dragons graduated 2,000-yard rusher Jared Jensen, coach Dan Cooper’s club is optimistic about making a smooth transition thanks in part to a big returning line.
Brewer is one of four schools in this year’s Eastern B field that also competed in the same division last year.
The Witches have just nine seniors, but should be sparked by a veteran front line of its own that includes four senior starters.
Nokomis (3-5) vs. Old Town (1-7), 7 p.m. Friday at Victory Field, Old Town: This game celebrates not only the start of a new football season, but also the work being done on the athletic complex at Old Town High School that to date includes new bleachers, a new press box, an eight-lane track and a new entryway to Victory Field.
More than 150 people are expected to turn out for an invitation-based pregame tailgate reception at the school to recognize contributors to the initial phases of the project, according to Old Town athletic administrator Brett Hoogterp. In addition, a halftime ceremony has been scheduled to honor six major donors to the effort.
Both Old Town and Nokomis have shifted from Class B to Class C this fall, though Nokomis still has a Class B enrollment and will not be playoff-eligible as new head coach Matt O’Connell works to build up that program.
Hampden Academy (7-2) vs. Mt. Blue (12-0), 7 p.m. Friday at Caldwell Field, Farmington: Another school that will break in a refurbished facility is Mt. Blue, which will play at Caldwell Field for the first time since 2010 after playing off campus the last two years to accommodate a school construction project.
Mt. Blue is the defending Class B state champion and is expected to make another deep playoff run thanks in great part to a veteran presence along the line of scrimmage.
The game also marks the head coaching debut of Hampden’s Kevin Canty, a former assistant coach at Husson University. The Broncos are coming off their fifth straight postseason appearance last fall, and will be led by senior quarterback Matt Martin.
Belfast (5-5) at Winslow (10-2), 1 p.m. Saturday at Poulin Field, Winslow: The game of the week in Eastern C matches a Belfast squad full of skill-position experience against Winslow, which similarly returns most of its backfield players from last year’s Western Maine Class C title team.
Both teams are expected to emerge among the upper echelon of this year’s revised Class C ranks, with Belfast coming off a run to the Class B semifinals last fall highlighted by a last-play upset of Leavitt of Turner Center in the quarterfinals.
Senior Zach Collier, a third-year starter at quarterback, leads the Lions, while Winslow features the backfield combination of junior halfback Dylan Hapworth and senior fullback Zach Guptil.
“Guptil is a force, he’s a big kid,” said Belfast coach Chris Bartlett. “And their tailback is quick.”
Bucksport (7-3) at Dexter (6-3), 1 p.m. Saturday, Tiger Field, Dexter: These two Class D teams will meet in a rematch of a 2012 Class C quarterfinal in which Bucksport emerged with a thrilling one-point (28-27) victory.
Bucksport graduated just four seniors from that club and returns a lineup featuring junior quarterback Matthew Stewart, senior wideout Josh Gray and senior fullback-linebacker Nic Bishop.
Dexter, coming off just its second postseason berth since 1995, has healthy participation numbers under second-year head coach Kevin Armstrong and a veteran playmaker in senior quarterback Trevor Fogarty.