BELFAST — In many respects, the 2011 edition of the Belfast varsity football program is much like previous ones: Good numbers, experienced returnees, and some veteran players motivated by a season-ending playoff loss.
But in one way, this Lions squad differs from almost all others in a unique way.
“We have only three seniors on the team and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said third-year head coach Chris Bartlett. “We’re actually younger, but we have more experience. It’s an interesting situation.”
Bartlett currently has 42 players out for the team, but is expecting a few more after some regain their academic eligibility. Just more than 20 players took part in voluntary summer workouts at 6 a.m. and also played in a seven-on-seven tournament at Hampden.
The 14 juniors on the roster will be counted on to fill the veteran vacuum as senior captains Kyle Culbertson and Jack Campbell lead the team on and off the field.
“We have very high expectations for them even though they’re young,” said Bartlett. “I expect to compete in every game and our ultimate goal is to get back to the state championship game.”
It’s been eight years since the Lions, an annual state title contender, played in a state championships game.
“We went through some tough years and still snuck into the playoffs,” said Bartlett. “We were 4-5 in the regular season, but we could have easily been 7-2 or 6-3.”
The Lions were 4-4, but lost to Camden Hills in the regular season finale. The Lions then beat the Windjammers 50-0 in the playoffs before losing to Leavitt of Turner 31-8.
“Last year was more the transition year in these guys getting a feel for it,” said the former Hampden Academy player and assistant coach.
Sophomore quarterback Zach Collier typifies his team in that regard.
“He has a good feel for the ball and the more he goes, the more confident he’ll be,” Bartlett explained. “That’s what I like about this whole group in general is they gain confidence with their experience.”
Although the Lions aren’t as big as Belfast teams of the past, they’re not small. And with six returning starters on both sides of the ball, they’re tested.
“Defense will be the strongest part of our team and I think the linebackers are the strongest defensive unit,” Bartlett said. “We’re going to be aggressive and I’m more on the side of using their speed, turning them loose and having fun.”
Bartlett said he’ll take the good with the bad and expects some growing pains, but believes the reward outweighs the risk in his “40 or 50” defense and spread offense sets.
“We have a ton of skill kids and quickness. Offensively it’s our versatility and how we can throw and run well that will be key,” said Bartlett. “I expect our line to jell this year with three legit returning starters, and our running backs are young, but the neat thing is our split ends can run and our backs can catch.”
Belfast opens its season at Gardiner Friday at 7 p.m.
2011 results: 5-6, lost in Eastern B second round
Head coach: Chris Bartlett, 3rd year
Key players: Jack Campbell, HB-DB, Sr.; Kyle Culbertson, OG-MLB, Sr.; Peter Kelley, OG-DT, Jr.; Wyatt Roberts, OT-NG, Jr.; Zach Collier, QB, So.; Baxter Smith, SE-OLB, So.; Greg Clark, FB-OLB/SS, So.; Mike McFadden, SE-DB, So.
Outlook: The Lions may be young age-wise, but they return a lot of experience and plenty of talent to make a longer playoff run this season. Depth is also a strength, especially in the linebacking corps, secondary, and offensive backfield. If the Lions can get on a role early, they could contend for a home playoff berth.