NEWPORT, Maine — The intersection that links Exit 157 of Interstate 95 with state routes 2, 7 and 11 seemed quieter than usual Saturday evening.
Perhaps the calm at the traffic “Triangle” was a concession to the early winter.
More likely it was because on this night, at least, the buzz in this community of 3,300 and the seven smaller communities that together comprise Regional School Unit 19 was focused elsewhere — on a football team and its historic accomplishment.
The Nokomis Warriors had passed through the Triangle an hour or so earlier after winning the first state championship in the school’s 12-year varsity football history. Tyler Pelletier’s 68-yard punt return for a fourth-quarter touchdown was the difference as coach Jake Rogers’ club rallied past Fryeburg Academy 13-12 in the Class C final at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
Not only were locals savoring the win, but perhaps a new beginning of sorts.
The victory marked a milestone for boys sports at the school of approximately 600 students, as the gold ball won by the Warriors marked only the second team state championship since the school was founded in 1968.
Only Nokomis’ boys outdoor track team had reached a similar height, winning the Class A crown in 1985.
“It’s hard to bring words to that,” said Pelletier, one of 13 seniors who endured back-to-back 0-8 seasons when they were freshmen and sophomores. “We all knew [Saturday] that we needed to get this done and bring the trophy back home. We knew that deep down inside we couldn’t lose and we weren’t going to lose.
“Winning a state championship for the first time in 30 years is huge for our school. It’s massive.”
The gold ball also should make a great housewarming gift of sorts for the new $53 million combined high school and middle school, under construction across the road from the original school, that is expected to open next August.
“We’re bringing this home for the new school,” said Rogers, the Warriors’ second-year coach. “I’m sure there’ll be a place for it.”
More important than the trophy itself is what it represents — not only this championship but the knowledge that high aspirations are achievable.
Nokomis has spent most of its first 50 years of existence as a Class A program, its collection of small-town athletes competing against the largest communities from Augusta to Aroostook County.
That often has required some sacrifices unusually reserved for smaller, even more spread-out school systems. Among them is the extra time required for traveling between home and school for practices and games.
Often, just arranging car transportation back and forth each day or night between Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Palmyra, Plymouth, Saint Albans and Newport for sports can be problematic.
Most of the Warriors’ rivals during the Class A years were from larger, much more centralized communities with its student-athletes generally living much closer to school.
The school’s girls athletic programs endured to achieve considerable competitiveness, in particular a run of basketball teams around the turn of the century highlighted by the Warriors’ 2001 Class A state championship team.
But the boys teams typically struggled.
“I think that’s just kind of the way it’s been at Nokomis,” said Andrew Haining, Nokomis’ four-year starting quarterback. “Field hockey is good every year, girls basketball, everybody on the girls side of sports is always really good, it seems.
“The boys have never really pulled their weight, but hopefully we’re changing that.”
Nokomis, like nearly all other public high schools in Maine, has seen a downturn in enrollment in recent years. With that, the Warriors’ sports programs eventually dropped from the state’s largest-school division.
Today, Nokomis competes in Class A in the expanded five-class basketball format that includes a Class AA. It is Class B in most other sports, and the boys teams have become increasingly competitive from the basketball court to the baseball diamond.
But life is almost always tough for a start-up football program in eastern and northern Maine, no matter the class, and Nokomis was no exception.
The Warriors played a Class B schedule by enrollment for its first six seasons of varsity competition but won only nine of 48 games.
Nokomis petitioned to drop to Class C in 2013 and 2014 despite its Class B enrollment and went a combined 7-9, then endured back-to-back 0-8 seasons in its return to Class B in 2015 and 2016.
Finally, the Nokomis enrollment placed the football program in Class C among communities of more similar size and makeup. Two years later, a team led by 13 battle-tested seniors has brought home the first boys team state title in any sport in 33 years.
A postseason run produced the program’s first four postseason victories.
“I think as a freshman I was pretty big-headed. I was like ‘Man, we’re going to win the state championship freshman year,’” Haining said. “Then with the two dark years it was like, ‘The high school game’s really different and maybe it will never happen.’
“But this was something I always wanted. It’s a dream and it finally happened.”
Considerable graduation losses, like Pelletier, Haining and defensive standout Quinton Richards, will test the Warriors’ ability to sustain their newfound momentum next season.
Haining hopes having high school and middle school student-athletes in the same building next fall will add to the continuity within the football ranks.
“I think winning is always a great building block for whatever it may be,” he said, “so to be able to have the middle-school program in the same building as the high school and having a nice, shiny, new gold ball there definitely can be a building block for the program.”
Those who have made this championship happen also hope they have defined the possibilities not only for the football program but for other aspects of student life as Nokomis prepares to move into its new home.
“I think it’s great when a school can dominate in anything, whether it’s drama, band, soccer, field hockey,” Rogers said. “All the kids wanting to be awesome at something is a great thing, and hopefully this will be a trend.”