WINSLOW, Maine — Like other former Maine milltowns, the community at the confluence of the Sebasticook and Kennebec rivers needed to reinvent itself after the Scott Paper Co. facility closed in 1997.
The mill’s smokestacks and empty buildings remain a prominent part of the scenery just to the west of Gerry Poulin Memorial Field, where a work ethic forged from generations of mill employees played out among their sons Saturday afternoons each autumn through the Winslow High School football program.
The Black Raiders long have been a source of pride to the 7,700 residents of the town, a reflection of its working-class heritage and the determination to beat the odds. The team routinely competed against schools with significantly higher enrollments and more than held its own, winning 10 state championships between 1958 and 2001.
Today, Winslow is largely a bedroom community for the neighboring service center of Waterville and the state’s capital city of Augusta 20 miles to the south.
But the high school football team has retained the grittiness of the town’s manufacturing history and the prosperity that came with it, as well as the success.
The Black Raiders beat Leavitt of Turner Center 62-14 in the Class C state championship in Orono on Friday night, a third-straight trip to the title game that can be attributed in large part to one of the links between past and present, Winslow head coach Mike Siviski.
“I don’t know if you can put a finger on it, but there is a tradition that does exist and there’s an attitude that goes with it, and our players have picked up on the attitude,” said Siviski, a 1965 Winslow High School graduate, now in his 30th year as head coach at his alma mater.
“There is a tradition,” he said. “We don’t jump up and down all the time saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to uphold the tradition,’ but it’s there.”
That tradition has survived the closing of the mill and the town’s continuing transition, which has included a steady drop in the number of students attending the high school.
As of April 1, Winslow High School numbered just 464 students, making it one of Maine’s smallest schools fielding a Class C football team. Leavitt, by contrast, had 613 students according to the same survey, making it the largest Class C football school statewide eligible for postseason play.
“We had a period of time in the old days when we had a nine- or 10-man turnover from offense to defense for several years in a row,” Siviski said. “We weren’t very big, but we had a lot of kids playing.
“We’ve got seven or eight kids playing both ways today.”
The nature of the students who remain also has evolved, not just in Winslow but virtually everywhere because of differing priorities often shaped by technological advances and the availability of social media.
“Things have changed here. But you talk to coaches from other programs, and things have changed everywhere,” Siviski said. “You talk about the psyche of kids these days. And with all the instant communication and all the things they do and all the instant gratification that’s out there, football isn’t like that.
“Football is the long haul with slow improvement. And so many times these days, if people don’t have something instantly, they’re not satisfied. They want that instant gratification, but football’s not like that. It’s a tough game, and you have to give a lot of respect to the kids who play it,” he continued. “A lot of kids these days don’t want to make that type of commitment, but a lot of times you find out if you challenge them that they probably really haven’t changed that much underneath.”
Siviski was a baseball, basketball and football player for Winslow High School during the early and mid-1960s. He played offensive guard, fullback and linebacker on the Black Raiders’ football team under coach Wally LaFountain.
“We were pretty good my junior year, pretty average my senior year,” Siviski said. “Our first-string quarterback went to Waterville, and our second-string quarterback went to Lawrence, so that kind of hung us up a little bit.”
He went on to the University of Maine, where he saw modest playing time on the football team but also nurtured his desire to coach by helping out with Maine’s spring football program during his senior year.
“I knew I wanted to coach, but I didn’t quite know how to go about it,” he said. “I think coaching spring football at the University of Maine was really a boon for me when I just sat down and listened to all the coaches. It kind of opened your eyes and made you realize just how multi-tasking a job it is.”
But Siviski was hooked. After graduation, he landed a teaching job at Thornton Academy in Saco and joined the Golden Trojans’ football coaching staff. He remained in southern Maine for 16 years until the chance to return to his alma mater opened up when Harold “Tank” Violette retired as Winslow’s football coach after the 1984 season.
Three decades later, Siviski’s teams have produced six state championships, 10 regional titles, a 233-80 record good for a .745 winning percentage and just two losing seasons — none since 1990.
“That’s not bad, I guess, but its a combination of hard-working kids and good coaching staffs,” Siviski said. “We do have pretty big expectations, but we don’t talk about it all the time. We just go out and play and prepare week in and week out and try to be consistent in the long run. That’s easy to say but hard to do.”
Much of Winslow’s success can be attributed to coaching consistency. Siviski is one of just three men who have served as the Black Raiders’ head coach since 1958, and his staff traditionally has featured experienced assistants, among them Jim Poulin, Winslow’s longtime defensive coordinator until he retired in 2013.
“Year in and year out, Mike takes the talent he has and maximizes it,” Poulin said. “The kids are put in the right spots to be successful. The schemes are fundamentally sound. With everything he does, there’s a reason behind it and the kids buy into it and make it work.”
Siviski’s staff includes another longtime assistant in Pete Bolduc, veteran Maine high school and college coach Mike Marston, former Winslow player and Messalonskee of Oakland head coach Wes Littlefield and Ken Nadeau, an offensive tackle on two of Siviski’s state championship teams.
“Coaching at the high school level or at any level is doing the best with what you have,” Siviski said. “Overall, the kids have made a pretty good commitment to learning the game and improving at football, and the consistent approach of the staff rubs off on the players.”
Winslow’s coaching consistency also is represented by a focus on the basics that hasn’t changed much in decades, even as offensive philosophies have expanded from 3 yards and a cloud of dust to spread formations that have taken the sport to the airways.
“I could say that we do the same things differently,” Siviski said. “We’ve always believed in strong fundamentals. Defense is shedding and tackling and offense is blocking.”
For Siviski, coaching also is working with all players on his roster, not just the stars. Among his duties, he runs the scout team typically made up of younger players that seeks to replicate what upcoming opponents will use against the Black Raiders come game day.
“I really enjoy it as a coach because you get to work with the No. 1 player on the team and you get to work with the No. 42 player on the team every day,” he said. “It’s been beneficial, too, because we’ve had several kids move up this year, and that’s really helped our depth.”
Winslow captured its first state title in 13 years when it beat Leavitt, the reigning champion that outscored the Black Raiders 47-18 in the 2013 gold-ball game.
Siviski was asked before the game if it could be the final contest of his coaching career.
“We’ll see,” he said. “The last few years, around April or May, I always re-evaluate and see how things are going. It’s like an every-year thing for me right now. There are a lot of non-football irritants today, but I guess that goes with anything.”