The 2014 high school football season begins this weekend with great optimism in some quarters and justifiable concerns elsewhere.
Optimism reigns within programs with realistic championship aspirations, those hoping to experience celebrations similar to those enjoyed last year by Bonny Eagle of Standish (Class A), Cony of Augusta (Class B), Leavitt of Turner Center (Class C) and Oak Hills of Wales (Class D).
There’s also optimism in both Houlton, which this year returns varsity football to Aroostook County for the first time in more than six decades, and along the midcoast at Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, which is continuing to build momentum toward gaining its own varsity status by playing a full LTC exhibition schedule.
But at least a handful of programs in Eastern Maine are struggling with low participation rates, rosters numbering in the 20s that in individual cases may represent a short-term blip or a longer-range battle for program stability.
But no matter the numbers, all teams begin the season with the same dream — competing for a state championship.
The Class C state final is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 21, at the University of Maine in Orono, with the A, B and D finals to follow the next day at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
The road to those destinations begins with Week 1.
Bangor Rams at Edward Little Red Eddies, 7 p.m. Friday: Both teams qualified for postseason play last fall in the initial season of the revised Class A ranks under the state’s new four-class football format.
Bangor reached the Eastern A semifinals before being ousted by Cheverus of Portland, while Edward Little was a quarterfinalist.
Bangor is expected to rely heavily on its front line and the rushing duo of fullback Logan Hamer-Nagle and tailback Dane Johnson, while Edward Little counters with a spread offense.
“They’re wide open, throwing the ball everywhere,” said 14th-year Bangor coach Mark Hackett. “They do a little pistol, little shotgun, and then they run the ball at you.
“It’s a good test for us. We’ll know more about how our strength is going to fare against quicker teams after Friday night.”
Mt. Blue Cougars at Hampden Academy Broncos, 7 p.m. Friday: When these teams met in last year’s season opener, it was a mismatch as Mt. Blue raced out to a 28-0 lead en route to a 49-20 victory at Farmington.
For the Broncos, at least, the memory lingers.
“We have some guys who are still upset about how we played them last year,” said second-year Hampden coach Kevin Canty, “which is a good thing because it shows me as a coach that it means something to them.”
Mt. Blue welcomes new coach Jim Aylward, who guided Mountain Valley of Rumford to four state titles and seven regional championships over 25 seasons.
Aylward’s presence on the sidelines may present a defensive challenge for Hampden, as Aylward’s Mountain Valley teams ran the wing-T while Mt. Blue employed a spread formation under now-retired coach Gary Parlin.
“I expect the unexpected from them,” said Canty, whose team will counter with its own spread formation. “We’re preparing for the spread, we’re preparing for the wing-T. I do know one thing, it’s going to be exciting Friday night.”
Brewer Witches at Brunswick Dragons, 7 p.m. Friday: Brewer plays its first game under new coach Nick Arthers, who guided Old Town to a Class C playoff berth in his second year with the Coyotes last fall.
Arthers’ debut on the Witches’ sideline will be no easy task. Brunswick reached the Eastern B final last fall, and while the Dragons are less experienced at the line of scrimmage this year, they boast a powerful rushing tandem in 240-pound fullback Alex Bandouveres and tailback Will Bessey.
“They’ve got a pretty good team with their two running backs,” said Arthers. “It’s going to be a test for us and we’re going to really see where we’re at and see what’s in store because a lot of people are talking about Brunswick being one of the better teams in Class B.”
Foxcroft Academy Ponies at Waterville Purple Panthers, 1 p.m. Saturday: Two teams expected to contend for upper-echelon finishes in Eastern Maine Class C square off in this matinee matchup.
Waterville, an Eastern C finalist last fall, has a new coach in Matt Gilley but will continue to rely on its strength across the line of scrimmage and a ground game paced by senior Dan Pooler.
Foxcroft also boasts a fairly veteran team, and the Ponies have opened up their offense to create space for several playmakers, particularly junior wideout Hunter Smith — the son of former University of Maine basketball star Dean Smith — and senior halfback Peter Boyer.
“It’s a huge task,” said Foxcroft coach Danny White of his team’s Week 1 challenge. “They’re a very physical team and we’re going to have our hands full, no doubt about it.
“On both sides of the ball they’re going to be bigger than us. We just hope we can use our speed and athleticism and keep the offense fluid and maybe keep them on their heels. It’s a tough task, but the kids will be up for it.”