It’s been a rapid rise from a deep abyss for the Nokomis Regional High School football team.
But a change in classes, a new head coach and a core group of veteran players have changed all that over the past two seasons, and today the Newport school is not only a first-time Class C North champion but also set to face Fryeburg Academy for the state crown beginning at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium.
A Nokomis victory would mark just the school’s second state championship in a boys team sport, joining the Warriors’ 1985 outdoor track team.
“This is huge, being the first [football] team to go this far, and now we’re going to states,” Nokomis senior Quinton Richards said after the fourth-ranked Warriors’ 13-6 victory over No. 2 Hermon in last Saturday’s regional final.
Nokomis began fielding a varsity football team just 12 years ago and experienced inevitable growing pains, going just 9-39 in its first six seasons of play in Class B.
When high school football in the state expanded from three to four classes in 2013, Nokomis remained a Class B school by enrollment. But rather than face such traditional large-school programs as Lawrence of Fairfield, Mt. Blue of Farmington and Brunswick, the school petitioned to play down in Class C for two years and gave up postseason eligibility in hopes of finding a more competitive environment for the program.
It worked to some degree, with Nokomis finishing 3-5 in 2013 and then compiling a 4-4 record in 2014 that was good enough to make the playoffs had the team been eligible.
Nokomis returned to Class B in 2015 and 2016 with hopes of building on that momentum, but not only did the Warriors fall back, but they also went 0-8 twice, and were outscored 291-100 in 2015 and 320-93 in 2016.
“Going through two 0-8 seasons was not a good feeling,” said Nokomis senior quarterback Andrew Haining, who also started behind center as a freshman and sophomore on the 2015 and 2016 teams.
Then last year Nokomis was reclassified by enrollment to Class C, and that classification change also coincided with the arrival of a new head coach in Jake Rogers, who had both played and served as an assistant coach at Lawrence.
The program’s ascent began immediately.
Last fall the Warriors matched the program’s win total for its first five seasons of varsity play, finishing the regular season ranked third in Class C North at 6-2 before dropping a competitive 33-24 quarterfinal to eventual state champion Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield.
This fall Nokomis endured a rigorous regular-season schedule that included six playoff qualifiers to finish 4-4 and rank fourth in Class C North before controlling the line of scrimmage for three straight weeks of postseason play to earn its first regional championship and the chance to bring a state title back to Newport.
“Rogers makes us work,” said Richards, one of 13 seniors on the Nokomis roster. “It’s not a lollygag session. You put your nose to the grindstone and just keep going.”
Richards epitomizes that aggressive approach, particularly on defense where he leads the Warriors with 97 tackles, 10 for loss.
That Nokomis defense — which yielded just two touchdowns and an average of 126.7 yards during its first-ever regional playoff victories over Medomak Valley of Waldoboro (38-6), MCI (13-0) and Hermon (13-6) — has been aided by a ball-control offensive approach in contrast to the Warriors’ more wide-open attack during the regular season.
“I like to spread it out and I like to be in [shot]gun, but you have to have an alternate plan when the weather gets bad,” Rogers said. “Ours is to go with some Wing T, which is who I am, and the kids execute it and really get after it, and the guys up front have really bought in. It was good to have that backup plan, for sure.”
That more smashmouth attack includes at least four players — Richards, James Boyd and Nicholas Lincoln along the line of scrimmage and David Wilson at fullback — who brought with them some championship experience as members of Nokomis’ 2018 Class A North-winning wrestling team.
Richards is a two-time state champion at 152 pounds, and Boyd is the reigning Class A state champ at 220, while Wilson was a state runner-up at 160 last winter and Lincoln finished fourth at 285.
“We played at MCI with all that mud, and there was no way we could throw it, so we really tested ourselves up front to see if we could dominate someone and we proved it,” Haining said. “They have a great O-line at MCI and we dominated them, and then our O-line and D-line did it again against Hermon. We knew we could play smashmouth football.”
Now the Warriors face one final test against a Fryeburg program with its own limited championship experience. The Raiders are playing in their first state final since the Maine Principals’ Association adopted its current playoff format, though the school was named 1963 Class C state champion and shared the 1965 Class B crown with John Bapst of Bangor.
“These kids really want to prove something to everybody statewide, that they can do it,” Rogers said. “That’s been our thing pretty much from the get-go this postseason, proving the doubters wrong.
“We’ve got one more week to do that. That’s our goal.”
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