LINCOLN, Maine — Winning or losing didn’t always top the list of Trysten Pelkey’s concerns during his first three years with the Mattanawcook Academy football team.
“It was going into a game running around thinking, ‘Am I going to get sacked a million times this game,’” said the veteran quarterback-safety, “or ‘Am I going to make it out of this game uninjured?’”
The talented Pelkey endured his share of injuries during the last three seasons as the Lynx — regular contenders for LTC championships through the mid-2000s — won just seven games.
How times have changed.
Pelkey and the other seniors who have persevered through the tough times are now riding high, leading 9-1 Mattanawcook into Saturday’s LTC/Eastern Maine Class D final at undefeated Bucksport.
It’s an opportunity few on the team, including senior running back and cornerback Zach Perry, thought possible just a few months ago
“At the beginning of the season, I couldn’t have dreamt this season,” said Perry.
Credit for the rise back to prominence can be spread throughout the program.
A new head coach, Bill McCarthy, brought with him a connection to the Lynx’ past success as a former player and assistant coach at his alma mater, and the players bought into his disciplined yet positive approach.
That buy-in was a prerequisite for any upward mobility because of how far the team fallen — last year’s two-win season ended with a 65-6 LTC quarterfinal humbling at top-ranked Foxcroft Academy.
There was a mixup (with Hermon being ineligible for the playoffs as a new team) so we didn’t know until that Monday that we were going to be playing another week,” said senior tackle Elijah Susen. “No one was really happy about it, to be honest. I think not one person other than the coaches were happy we were going to be playing another week. We wanted the season to be over.”
McCarthy’s arrival helped spur increased participation in MA’s summer workout program, building a foundation of conditioning and depth that has proven pivotal to this year’s football renaissance.
“It’s day and night, we just have more commitment top to bottom,” said senior fullback-linebacker A.J. MacEachern. “In the weight room we had 20 or 30 kids every night, and my other years we had 12 on our best night. Kids are buying into what the coaches are saying, and it’s been a lot more fun this year.
“And it’s not just the success that makes it fun, but knowing you’re going to have to go out there and compete to keep your spot because there’s a lot of underclassmen who are playing good and competing.”
And while the roster is dominated by 17 juniors and 12 sophomores, many of those players arrived in preseason camp with a year or more of varsity experience necessitated when other upperclassmen left the program.
“These kids come out and blow our minds pretty much every practice,” said Perry. “They come out every day and push harder and harder. The underclassmen have really made this team.”
The Lynx made believers of themselves with a Week 3 win at Orono.
“When you have to look these kids in the eye and say from the get-go that if you work hard and do what we ask then the winning will come, you need some kind of tool to keep them motivated because football’s a long season,” said McCarthy. “Once they started winning it was easier to get them to practice hard and make that commitment to the team.”
MA stretched its win streak to seven games before a regular season-ending battle of the unbeatens at Bucksport, where the Golden Bucks used a fast start for a 23-6 victory.
“Our biggest problem in the first game was we came out kind of shell-shocked,” said MacEachern. “We’d won seven games the first three years so we’d never played in a big, big game. We didn’t know how to react, and they had played in more big-game situations. They’re No. 1 for a reason.”
MA rallied from a 21-0 deficit for a 22-21 win over Washington Academy in its playoff opener, then beat Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield 34-6 to earn a shot at its first Eastern Maine crown since 1999.
“Our underclassmen who are really big contributors to the team have now been in a couple of games where it’s been high intensity,” said junior tackle Tanner McCarthy, son of the head coach. “They’re used to the playoffs and know how it feels. In the (MCI) game they really stepped up, played with a lot of emotion and played really good. They were on fire, and I think they’ll come out the same way this Saturday.”