BANGOR — Standing on the artificial turf at Husson University’s Winkin Complex on Thursday night, Ethan Hibbard put into perspective the finality facing himself and the other 12 seniors on the Stearns High School football roster as they practiced for Saturday’s Class C state championship game against Yarmouth.
“It’s kind of surreal that this is our last week of football ever,” he said. “We’ve just got to make the best of it.”
Making the best of Saturday’s 6 o’clock battle of the unbeatens at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland means overcoming a Yarmouth team that while just a fourth-year varsity program has won 19 of its last 20 games over the last two seasons, including its 11-0 record this year.
“They definitely look quick,” said Stearns senior tailback and linebacker Billy Eurich. “Their size is a lot like like ours, they’re small but they’re quick. They don’t seem as physical as we are, but they definitely have some speed on their offensive line and with their backs.”
While Yarmouth may be known for its team speed, Stearns (11-0) is known for aggressive play on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Eurich, a 1,300-yard rusher, keys the offense with Jared McGreevy, a fourth-year starter at quarterback. Fullback-lineman Charlie Tapley, wideout Brandon McLaughlin, tight end Brandon Bouchard and running backs Hibbard and Ryan Hibbs also have been major contributors to a Stearns offense that has averaged 31.7 points per outing.
Stearns’ first-team defense, meanwhile, has allowed just three touchdown drives all season, with Eurich, fellow linebackers Josh Studer and Jordan Morrow, Tapley at tackle and defensive ends Jude Tapley and Bouchard providing strength up front while McLaughlin, Cody Herring and Hibbard patrol the secondary.
Coach Jim Hartman’s Yarmouth club counters with a Wing-T offense directed by freshman quarterback Brady Neujahr, with fullback Nick Proscia and halfbacks Nate Pingitore and Anders Overhaug providing balance to the rushing attack.
The Clippers have averaged 44.3 points per game, though in a pair of two-point victories over Western C finalist Lisbon they averaged just 15 points per contest.
“They’ve got speed and they run a pile of different counter plays off that,” said Stearns coach Chris Preble. “They run their fullback quite a bit, and then you start cheating in on that and the quarterback’s going to beat you to the outside so you’ve got to play good, solid assignment football against them.”
Inside linebackers Proscia and Jon Held spark a Yarmouth defense that has allowed just 25 points during three postseason victories.
“They run a five-man front, and they move their linemen around quite a bit,” said Preble. “The ‘backers will play up tight and they’ve got some speed linebackers that scrape and try to chase you down, so we’ve got to try to negate that speed a bit by getting some bodies on them.”
Yarmouth enters the contest having played and practiced on artificial turf throughout the season on their home field. The Minutemen’s decision to make the 75-mile trip from Millinocket to practice at Husson on Thursday was a first attempt to acclimate themselves to turf similar to Fitzpatrick Stadium’s artificial surface.
“It all depends on how we adjust to it,” said Preble. “It obviously makes you fast, no doubt about it, so when you watch them on film you think, ‘Holy cow, they’re fast,’ and then you watch us on film running on grass and mud. It will be interesting to see how that speed picks up for us (on turf). But if they’re going to be fast, then we need to take that speed away.”
Preble expects the game to come down to two factors, field position and ball control, factors crucial to his team’s success throughout its quest to win the program’s first state title since 1998.
“The team that’s able to control the ball and gain field position is going to have the advantage,” said Preble. “It’s been our strength. We’ve been kicking off and pinning the other team back and getting the ball in good field position. We’ve given our defense good opportunities and also given our offense good scoring opportunities.”
While Yarmouth — as well as Class A finalist Bangor — is bidding to become the first school to win state championships in football and boys soccer in the same year, Stearns, a school some 300 students smaller, already has served as an inspiration to a city hard-hit in recent years by the loss of its primary employer, the former Great Northern Paper Co.
“We’ve been practicing really well, the intensity has been there and we’ve really been working together,” said McGreevy. “It’s been a great week, and hopefully we’ll end this on a great note by bringing the gold ball back to Millinocket. It would be great for the community.”