The Brewer Witches came close to capturing the Class B North football championship in 2016, falling by just a two-point conversion in the regional final to an undefeated Brunswick team that went on to win the state title.
Coach Nick Arthers’ club has sent two graduated members of that team — Fitzpatrick Trophy-finalist running back/linebacker Trey Wood (University of Maine) and Gaziano Award-winning lineman Austin Lufkin (Wofford College) off to pursue Division I college football careers, along with several other players now seeking roster spots at the Division III level.
That doesn’t mean this year’s Brewer team, following the 2015 and 2016 editions that both reached the B North championship game, expects anything less than to contend for yet another deep playoff run.
“This is the first senior class I’ve had here as freshmen so they know what’s expected from them,” said Arthers, the Witches’ fourth-year head coach. “They’ve stepped up and met the challenge in the weight room and in the early practices the kids were really enthusiastic.
“They don’t have any plans of letting up and taking this as a rebuilding season. They just want to get right after it and do as well as they can.”
While Lufkin was among the key graduates up front, Arthers expects line play to be a key to this year’s success with the return of reigning All-Pine Tree Conference tackle Garrett Graham, fourth-year starter Tyler Bean and Jacob McCluskey, a third-year starter at end.
Senior Cody Wood returns for his second season as Brewer’s starting quarterback.
“We’ve got a pretty seasoned line,” said Arthers. “That’s what we’re really going to build off.”
Another team that suffered significant graduation losses is Brunswick, the three-time defending regional champion, but coach Dan Cooper’s club has similar expectations of maintain its status atop the division.
Both Skowhegan and Cony of Augusta graduated prolific quarterbacks in Garrett McSweeney and Taylor Heath, respectively, but both squads return a nucleus of skill-position talent poised to continue their teams’ high-scoring ways.
Skowhegan will be guided from the sidelines by Ryan Libby, the team’s former defensive coordinator who was named interim head coach in July after Matt Friedman ended his five-year tenure with the Indians to join the coaching staff at Husson University in Bangor.
Skowhegan, a Class B North quarterfinalist in 2016, likely will be guided on the field by junior Marcus Christopher, McSweeney’s understudy the last two years.
“I feel confident in our talent coming back that we’ll have some guys who will be ready,” said Libby after being promoted to interim head coach. “It’s hard to replace a kid like Garrett but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the next guy in line.”
Cony’s skill-position threats include senior wideout Jordan Roddy, who had 67 receptions for 1,074 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall while leading coach B.L. Lippert’s Rams to the regional semifinals.
Lawrence of Fairfield should benefit from a year of experience last fall, with senior Braden Ballard returning as the Bulldogs’ third-year starting quarterback.
Another impact player is Messalonskee senior Austin Pelletier, who shifted from quarterback to fullback last fall and rushed for nearly 1,400 yards.
Libby is one of three new coaches in the division, along with Nate Quirion of Mt. Blue of Farmington and Shane Rogers of Hampden Academy.
Rogers, a former defensive end at Husson University who went on to spend seven years as an assistant coach with the Eagles, becomes the Broncos’ fourth coach in as many years. His immediate predecessor, Fred Lower, was promoted to the school’s athletic administrator.
“I’m here for the long haul, and I’m here for good, bad or indifferent,” said Rogers. “I want to provide a level of stability because there’s no way you can bring a program back to prominence without being here for five to 10 years.”
Rogers has just nine seniors among the 42 players who began preseason workouts with the Broncos, who were 2-6 last fall and are 5-19 over the last three seasons. On-field leadership will come from the likes of seniors Marcus Dunn and Connor Roy.
“The growth curve here can be great because they’re hungry for this,” said Rogers. “It’s a challenge, for sure, but when the community and the kids and the team and the school wants it, it makes it really fun to chase that challenge.
“We want to play football and we want to win.”