Cody Herring knows the potential of Stearns High School football.
He lived through it as a senior at the Millinocket school just seven years ago, when the Magic City Minutemen defied the odds of low enrollment to sweep through the Little Ten Conference with an undefeated regular season and capture the 2010 Eastern Maine Class C championship before falling to Yarmouth in the state final.
Herring was a two-way starter on that team and had a pass interception in the regional final to help Stearns defeat John Bapst of Bangor 20-7.
The years since then have been challenging for the program, with enrollment at the state’s smallest football-playing high school continuing to decline — as of June 1 it was 161 for grades 9-12 — and participation numbers in the sport shrinking to a sometimes perilous rate.
It’s been enough to prompt annual questions about the future of the sport in the prideful former milltown.
But Herring, 24, has returned to his hometown after earning a master’s degree from Springfield (Massachusetts) University and as the Minutemen’s new head football coach he is optimistic about the program’s future.
“I ended up back in town and it was a perfect fit for me,” Herring said. “Stearns was looking for a football coach, and I was looking to continue coaching.”
Herring replaces Steve Waceken, who left the post after two years because of work conflicts.
Herring coached as a volunteer assistant and for one year as a paid assistant at Stearns after graduating from the school before moving out of state to continue his studies and serve for two years as a freshman football coach in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Herring now works for Maine Heritage Timber of Millinocket, which produces furniture, flooring and other products made from preserved old-growth timber and reclaimed wood from the bottom of the Penobscot River.
“The football program here as I’m aware of has been under some hard times the last few years,” he said. “I know they’ve struggled with numbers, last year going up to Houlton with about 13 kids suited up.
“My goal in taking over the program is to try and breathe some fresh air into it, trying to take what I remember about playing Stearns football when the numbers were small but good and then bringing some of what I learned in Massachusetts to get these kids interested and excited about playing football. This is such a rich football community with so much tradition that I think there’s potential to grow it back up, maybe not to the way it was in its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, when they had 50 or 60 kids, but to the point where we can get 30 kids out there enjoying themselves playing football.”
Approximately 30 players have signed up to join the team for the start of preseason practices next month, including a small contingent from neighboring rival Schenck High School of East Millinocket.
“We have four kids who attend Schenck signed up to come and play,” Herring said. “I’ve spoken to some of them who are working out, so I think we’ll have some kids from East Millinocket playing this year. If we can get four kids this year and they have a good time, I think it can only grow from there.
“We want to open that door. We’d love for those kids to come and have a great time playing football and vice versa, we’d love our kids at Stearns who are interested in playing soccer to do that as well (with Schenck).”
Stearns, which finished 1-8 in the LTC last fall, will feature a youthful roster that has experienced success at the lower levels, including players up from the middle-school team that plays eight-man football.
“The fifth- and sixth-grade team went undefeated last year if I remember correctly, so the kids are interested and the numbers are good in the youth program,” Herring said. “One of my goals is to get down there with them and keep those kids interested in football because it’s a great sport, it teaches a lot of life lessons.”
Herring understands that the participation numbers are unlikely to return to those of the 1990s when Stearns won four Class Class C state titles in eight years and five consecutive LTC championships between 1991 and 1995.
But with school enrollments and football rosters shrinking around the state, if the Minutemen can maintain a roster of around 30 players — as was the case during the 2010 LTC championship season — Herring believes the Minutemen can be competitive.
“It’s a doable thing, it just comes down to being prepared,” he said. “That’s one thing that the coaching staff I played for did really well, and that’s what I want to do.
“We’re going to keep battling, and I hope we get good numbers but at the end of the day we’re going to work hard. That’s the Stearns way.”