BANGOR, Maine — When Bangor High School embarked upon its 2013 football schedule, new opponents like the three Portland entries — Cheverus, Deering and Portland High School — added an air of mystery to the season.
Sure, the Rams had played those Class A foes 30 years earlier, but the current generation faced those teams only in 7-on-7 summer competitions and in state finals until the schools were brought together again by the four-class football system re-introduced statewide last season by the Maine Principals’ Association.
Bangor finished 5-5 in 2013 after advancing to the Eastern Maine Class A semifinals, and as coach Mark Hackett’s club begins its second year under the current format, the mystery of the schedule no longer is a factor.
“Last year going into the season we didn’t know what to expect,” said Bangor senior wide receiver and linebacker Joe Johnson. “We had seen those teams but we hadn’t played them and it’s totally different when you play them on the field.
“We didn’t do too badly last year, and now we know what we’re going up against when we play teams like Cheverus and Portland.”
Defending regional champion Cheverus, which has not lost a regular-season game since 2009, as well as Portland and Windham are the likeliest obstacles to Bangor’s pursuit of an improved finish this fall.
Coach John Wolfgram’s Cheverus club returns two of the state’s top players in defensive end-tight end Zordan Holman and running back Joe Fitzpatrick, who rushed for more than 1,900 yards and 32 touchdowns last fall.
Portland, which nearly knocked off Cheverus in the EM final, graduated Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist Justin Zukowski and fellow playmakers in Jayvon Pitts-Young and Ronald Hargrove, but the Bulldogs return eight defensive starters.
Windham, meanwhile, has nearly its entire starting lineup back from last year’s 5-5 playoff team.
Other threats in the division include Lewiston with senior Quintarian Brown, a big-play producer on both offense and special teams who has been moved to quarterback; a more experienced Oxford Hills of South Paris team and two other teams in Deering and Edward Little of Auburn that will seek to spread the field offensively after each won just one game last fall.
Look for the Rams to take a ground-and-pound approach, with 240-pound senior fullback Langston Hamer-Nagle healthy after dealing with shoulder injuries last fall and ready to seek out the tough inside yard behind a physical offensive line while also creating rushing lanes for talented junior halfback Dane Johnson.
“I enjoy being able to block being a former guard and getting a running head start,” said Hamer-Nagle, “and I enjoy Dane running behind me because I know I can trust him to make the right cut and make the break as long as I make the right block for him.”
It’s an old-school approach that easily brings a smile to the face of 14th-year Bangor head coach Mark Hackett.
“The fullback looks for real, he’s a good blocker and he can also carry the ball,” he said, “and when the fullback can do that it makes it easier for Dane, who’s also a big, strong kid. We’re big and strong up front, and the halfbacks are quick.”
Junior Jeff Lewis steps in at quarterback to manage the run-oriented attack, while Nick Graham at wingback, Jordan Ayer at tight end and Jake Fournier at split end are among other go-to guys behind a line that includes center Zach LeClair, guards Evan McAuliffe and Brenhan Lane and tackles Josh Clement and Owen Trundy.
“I think we can stretch the field vertically and horizontally with this group,” said Hackett.
Hamer-Nagle at tackle, sophomore Nick Tapley at nose guard and Ayer at defensive end will be among Bangor’s leaders on the defensive front with McAuliffe and Joe Johnson at linebacker.
Hackett also anticipates an improved secondary with Dane Johnson and Graham at safety and sophomore John Clement and juniors Ethan Dorman and Tanner Goodine among those vying for playing time at cornerback.
“We have one of the bigger defensive lines that we’ve had in a while,” said Hamer-Nagle, “and that makes the [opponent’s] offensive line focus on us rather than the secondary and that allows the secondary to do their job and not have to worry about our job as well as theirs.”
One intangible that fuels the team’s optimism is its chemistry.
“They’re each other’s best friends, and that’s what high school sports is all about,” said Hackett. “It doesn’t happen all the time. I don’t know if it’s like that every five years, every 10 years, but I like it when we get it.”
Bangor will return to playing Friday night home games this season after playing at Cameron Stadium on Saturday afternoons last fall while the facility’s lights and electrical system were being upgraded.
The Rams also will play three of their first four games on the road — including back-to-back Portland trips in Weeks 3 and 4 to face Deering and Portland after their Week 2 home opener against Western A crossover opponent Scarborough.
But the second half of the schedule is less travel-oriented, with only a third trip to Portland to face Cheverus in Week 7 to go with home dates against Windham, Lewiston and Oxford Hills.
“People accuse me of being very optimistic, but I like this group,” said Hackett, whose team opens its season at Edward Little on Friday night. “I think we’re for real but we’ve got to prove it.
“I think we’re big and strong, but how quick and whether we’re quick enough we’ll have to wait and see.”