Over the last four years, Foxcroft Academy football coach Danny White has welcomed the challenges playing in Class C North had presented his Ponies.
This fall, with its drop to Class D, Foxcroft is going home, so to speak, to the LTC.
And with that move to Class D comes the return of longtime rivalries with teams such as Bucksport and Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln who, along with Foxcroft, are expected to be among the better teams in the region this season.
“We’re very excited to get back and play some of the schools that we had played for decades,” said White, whose team went 4-4 in Class C last year and qualified for postseason play.
“The last four years playing schools that are larger than us certainly has helped us and certainly hasn’t hurt us.”
If there’s one common dynamic Bucksport and Foxcroft share, it’s that they boast two of the most experienced quarterbacks in the region. The Golden Bucks feature senior Chase Carmichael and FA returns senior signal caller Nick Clawson.
Mattanawcook Academy will be directed by senior Dominic Libbey.
Clawson, along with wide receivers Hyatt Smith and Jeremy Richard, give the Ponies a solid returning nucleus at the skill positions, while junior Michaleb Niles will see some time at tailback.
“The strength of our team this year is certainly our skill positions,” said White. “That bodes well for us but we’ve got to be able to block and tackle.”
Those same traits hold true for Bucksport, which posted a 6-3 record last season and bowed out to eventual state champion Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield in the postseason.
The Huskies are now in Class C, so a new champion will be crowned come November. With Carmichael under center, coach Joel Sankey’s Golden Bucks could very well be in that conversation.
“The kid can flat out throw the ball,” Sankey said. “He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten in the weight room. He’s just an all-around good athlete.”
Carmichael will have plenty of weapons in his arsenal, including receivers Keegan Richard and Tyson Gray, while Luke Wardwell is in the mix for the tailback job.
Bucksport faces a rugged schedule right off the bat, with three of its first four games on the road. They include crossover matchups at defending Class D South champion Lisbon/Monmouth and a home date with reigning Class C North titlist and Hancock County foe Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor.
“Our first four games are just very, very difficult,” said Sankey. “It is what it is. They’re trying to make football a little more competitive in the state, so we’ll see.”
Sankey said the back end of his defense will also be stout, while his interior lines will be anchored by 300-pound sophomore David Gross, a state champion wrestler whom Sankey said is athletic and can block downfield.
Both Richard and Gray stand about 6-foot-1 and have excellent speed, Sankey said, so expect Bucksport to be balanced offensively.
“We have a tradition here of quarterbacks who have done very, very well and receivers who will catch the ball,” Sankey said.
Like Bucksport, Foxcroft faces a testy crossover schedule, with a season-opening tilt with Madison/Carrabec and a Week 7 trip to MCI.
“It’s a pretty strong schedule that we’re happy about,” said White.
With talented quarterbacks in the LTC in Carmichael, Clawson and Libbey, a lot of coaches are putting an emphasis on being sound in the secondary, and White feels the back end will be one of his defense’s keys.
“We certainly understand that pass defense is going to be a strong point for us as we allow the young part of our defense to grow and come together up front,” White said.
Even though Ponies were traditionally competitive in Class C, White is thrilled to be back in the LTC, and knows there will be no easy games.
“We kind of feel like the LTC is home to us because we were part of the LTC for so many years,” White said.
Coach Pat House fielded a young Mattanawcook team in 2016, one that reached the postseason. He thinks his Lynx are ready to take the next step this fall.
“If we can play a more intelligent game, then we can play faster,” said House. “If we can play fast then we can play well. I think our kids have embraced that, and hopefully we’ll take the next step forward.”
Mattanawcook appears to have the personnel to make that happen. Other returnees include senior tailback Matt Young, a 1,000-yard rusher last fall, and wide receivers Alex Brown and Cayden Spencer-Thompson, the latter of whom has made a mark as one of the state’s best athletes in track and field.
“With those two on the edge we’re pretty athletic,” said House, whose team lost only seven seniors and had 40 kids in training camp.
The offensive and defensive lines will be anchored by senior Ben Fiske, a three-year starter who can play just about anywhere. Spencer-Thompson will also see time in the secondary while Libbey is one of the league’s top cornerbacks.
Mattanawcook has seven returning defensive starters.
“A lot of the time we’re going to be able to play people in multiple positions,” House said.
House believes Foxcroft and Bucksport will be two of the top teams in the league, and he hopes the Lynx will be fighting tooth and nail for the top two spots in the league standings, which will be rewarded with playoff byes.
Six teams will qualify for postseason play.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty competitive league,” House said. “There’s going to be at least eight teams that are going to vie for those six spots right out of the gate.”
Teams that could also fight for the other postseason spots include Mount View of Thorndike, Dexter, Houlton/Hodgdon/Greater Houlton Christian Academy and Orono.
All four of those teams made the postseason a year ago, with Dexter falling in the regional championship game to MCI. Mount View features a new head coach this fall in former Lawrence of Fairfield player Rick Leary, who coached in the Lawrence system for 25 years.
Stearns/Lee also has a new coach in Cody Herring, a Stearns graduate who was a part of the Millinocket school’s regional championship team in 2010. The Minutemen went 1-8 a year ago.
Washington Academy of East Machias looks to rebound from a winless 2016 campaign while Ellsworth/Sumner will seek to improve on last year’s 2-7 record.