PITTSFIELD, Maine — The top of the LTC football standings has a different look this fall.
Defending champion Foxcroft Academy moved out of the league when high school football statewide was expanded from three to four classes last spring for the first time since 1986.
And John Bapst of Bangor, which has reached five of the last six LTC championship games, is a rebuilding 2-5 this fall.
Now three other teams are battling for the top two seeds entering the final weekend of the regular season, though they’ll have to go quite a ways to top the wild night of action under a full moon last Friday when Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln remained unbeaten with a 50-44 double-overtime survival of Dexter and Bucksport outlasted Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield 42-35 in a battle of the LTC’s other two undefeated teams.
“That was a great high school football game,” said Bucksport head coach Joel Sankey. “MCI is a good football team and so are we, and it was a fun game to be in. It was exciting, it was nerve-wracking and it came right down to the end.”
That Bucksport will enter its regular-season finale with a 7-0 record isn’t surprising — the Golden Bucks were the LTC’s preseason favorite.
That Mattanawcook and MCI will enter Week 8 with a combined 13-1 record was not as predictable.
Mattanawcook won just twice a year ago and just seven times over the last three seasons. But new head coach Bill McCarthy and the Lynx got off to a quick start this fall and remained undefeated last weekend by rallying from an early 21-6 deficit to overcome a six-touchdown performance by Dexter star Trevor Fogarty.
“The kids had to buy into what we wanted to do,” said McCarthy, “and for the most part they’ve gone out and executed and made the plays.”
MA’s rapid improvement belies a youthful roster with just four seniors seeing playing time.
The Lynx are led by seniors Trysten Pelkey and A.J. MacEachern, who combined for seven touchdowns in the victory over Dexter, while sophomore Scott Jipson leads a bevy of younger players making major contributions to the program’s turnaround.
MCI went winless in 2012, and with a roster full of sophomores and juniors the Huskies were expected make progress this fall but not necessarily challenge for the LTC title.
“After last year we wanted to come back and show what we could do,” said MCI sophomore quarterback Greg Vigue, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns against Bucksport. “So the guys put in the hard work and were dedicated to what we wanted to do.”
MCI showed signs of its potential in a opening-night victory over an undermanned Orono squad that since then has rallied from injuries to key players to re-emerge as yet another contender when the LTC playoffs begin Nov. 1.
But it was in defeat Friday night that coach Tom Bertrand’s club perhaps convinced any remaining skeptics that its future is as much now as next year.
The Huskies fell behind by as many as 21 points midway through the second quarter before rallying within a touchdown and then driving inside the Golden Bucks’ 30-yard line in the final two minutes of play with a chance to force overtime.
“The biggest thing we gained from this was that our team never quit,” said Bertrand. “There were times when Bucksport had us on the ropes and our kids kept fighting back, fighting back. They didn’t give up. We hope that’s an indication of where we’re headed and so while we’re not happy we lost we think we can find some positives to take from this.”
Bucksport — yet another youthful team led in large part by its junior class — finally persevered through the defensive leadership of senior linebacker Nic Bishop and some key plays late in the game by linebacker Lucas Ashmore and linemen KP Hilaire, Alec Dyer and Tyler Maguire.
“It showed a lot of character on our part, our kids never quit,” said Sankey. “They played the full 48 minutes of football — and it looked like for a few minutes it was going to be longer than 48 minutes.”
That defense complemented an explosive performance on offense and special teams.
Josh Gray and Jack Cyr — each labeled as defensive back, tailback and athlete on the Bucksport roster — combined for six touchdowns on plays averaging 72.3 yards, with the shortest a 45-yard punt return by Gray that gave the Golden Bucks a 21-14 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“They’re both very, very good,” Sankey said. “When Josh gets his hands on the ball he’s so explosive, so quick and he’s got great hands. Jack is an elusive runner who follows his blocks very well, he gets behind them and then he’s a lot quicker than people think. When he sees a seam he just explodes through there.”
The explosions figure to continue during the final weekend of the regular season with an LTC schedule that features Mattanawcook Academy at Bucksport and MCI hosting Dexter.
The winner of the Bucksport-MA game will claim first place entering the Eastern D playoffs. Wins by Bucksport and MCI would leave Bucksport first and MCI and MA facing a coin flip Saturday morning for the No. 2 seed and final first-round playoff bye because they would be tied in all other tiebreaking scenarios.
Wins by MA and MCI on Friday would leave MA first, Bucksport second and MCI third by virtue of the Golden Bucks’ head-to-head victory over the Huskies.
A loss by MCI on Friday means the Bucksport-MA game would determine first and second places with the Huskies third.
“If you had told us at the beginning of the year that we’d be one of two undefeated teams playing in a game this Friday night we’d probably had to question it a bit,” said McCarthy. “But the kids are excited, the coaching staff is excited and the community is really excited to have this opportunity.”