Josh Gray’s first state championship game experience came two years ago when Bucksport trekked to Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium to face a Yarmouth team riding a 23-game winning streak and seeking its second straight Class C state crown.
The Golden Bucks entered that game as the underdog, then lost their starting quarterback and center to injuries on the same second-quarter play en route to a 41-14 loss.
“It was a real eye opener,” said Gray, now a senior wide receiver, defensive back and placekicker who had a 55-yard scoring run in that 2011 state final. “We really didn’t know what to expect because none of us had ever played in a game that big before.”
Gray and many of his younger teammates on that squad will get a second chance at the big prize at 2:30 p.m. Saturday when undefeated Bucksport (10-0) faces Oak Hill of Wales (9-2) for the Class D state title at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
“Our goal is the gold ball,” said Bucksport junior Asher Bowden, another veteran of the 2011 game. “Two years ago when we were going to states I think we were more satisfied with winning Eastern Maines. Hopefully we can keep going this year. I don’t think we’re satisfied.”
Bucksport’s presence in this year’s final comes as no surprise to Eastern Maine football followers — the Golden Bucks were the Little Ten Conference’s preseason favorite after graduating just four seniors from last year’s 7-3 team.
“Last year after the [first Foxcroft] game when we beat them we were a little under the radar, and we ended up playing them the second time [in the LTC semifinals] and they just crushed us,” said Joel Sankey, Bucksport’s 20th-year head coach. “So I think coming out of last year we weren’t under the radar. People knew about us, and as the season went on that bull’s-eye on their back got really, really big.
“But the kids have risen to all the occasions, they’ve overcome a lot. They’re a pretty special group.”
Bucksport boasts a diversified attack, with junior quarterback Matthew Stewart passing for more than 1,000 yards primarily to Gray and tight ends Gabe Stearns and Lucas Ashmore, while junior Jack Cyr has rushed for more than 1,000 yards to pace a ground game that also includes contributions from Bowden and fullbacks Nic Bishop and Nathan Gray.
Linemen KP Hilaire and Tyler Maguire and Bishop at linebacker anchor the Bucksport defense, while Gray also has been a weapon in the kick game, making 42 of 44 extra-point attempts as well as a 40-yard field goal that provided the winning margin in Bucksport’s 17-14 LTC semifinal win over Orono.
“We’ve got kids on this team, and we’re a Class D school, who could be playing in a lot of different classes and starting for a lot of different teams in the state,” said Sankey, whose team defeated Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln 42-8 in last Saturday’s LTC final.
Oak Hill will be in its first state final since 1984 after edging Dirigo of Dixfield 16-14 in the Western D title game.
The Raiders typically employ a physical, grind-it-out approach that features a rushing attack led by juniors Kyle Flaherty and Alex Mace. They have combined to gain more than 2,000 yards this fall, with Flaherty entering the state final with 1,564 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
Mace also is the favorite target of senior quarterback Parker Asselin with 22 catches for 510 yards and five touchdowns, while senior end Luke Washburn is another playmaker for coach Stacen Doucette’s club.
Class B: No. 2 Cony (8-2) vs. No. 1 Kennebunk (11-0), 7 p.m. Friday, University of Maine, Orono: The first state final at UMaine since 1999 figures to be a shootout, with Cony averaging 43.1 points per game and Kennebunk at 37.5 ppg. Cony senior quarterback Ben Lucas has completed 201 of 329 passes for 3,039 yards with 38 touchdowns this fall, and his 86 career TD passes are considered an unofficial state record. Kennebunk uses an option attack directed by quarterback Nick Emmons, who has rushed for nearly 1,100 yards. Nicco DeLorenzo is another productive rusher for the the Western Maine champs. The teams have one common opponent, with Kennebunk defeating Greely of Cumberland Center 42-14 at home during Week 5 of the regular season while Cony lost at Greely 35-21 in Week 7.
Class A: No. 1 Cheverus (10-0) vs. No. 1 Bonny Eagle (9-1), 11 a.m. Saturday, Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland: Cheverus has won 44 of its last 45 games but had to rally from a 19-7 halftime deficit to outlast Portland 22-19 in the Eastern Maine final as it seeks its third state title in the last four years. Bonny Eagle avenged its only loss when it defeated 2012 state champion Thornton Academy 28-13 in the Western Maine final. Cheverus is led by junior halfback Joe Fitzpatrick, who has rushed for nearly 1,800 yards and 29 touchdowns. Cheverus coach John Wolfgram is seeking his 11th state title overall while Bonny Eagle coach Kevin Cooper won four state championships at Bonny Eagle between 2004 and 2008.
Class C: No. 1 Winslow (9-1) vs. No. 1 Leavitt (10-0), 6 p.m. Saturday, Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland: Winslow makes its second straight bid for its first state title since 2001 after suffering a 22-20 loss to Foxcroft Academy last November. The Black Raiders look to be peaking after avenging its lone loss with a 49-18 victory over Waterville in the Eastern Maine final. Winslow is led offensively by fullback Zach Guptill and halfback Dylan Hapworth, while tackle Aaron Lint anchors the defense. Leavitt won its fourth regional title in the last five years with a 48-21 victory over Spruce Mountain of Jay-Livermore Falls. Senior Tyler Chicoine runs the Hornets’ spread offense, while Conor O’Malley and Nate Coombs are among other playmakers.