Dan O’Connell remembers the first time he was a head coach in the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic, when a last-minute touchdown pass and successful extra-point kick gave his East squad a 17-16 victory.
“To me, that was a great game,” O’Connell said of that largely defensive-minded 2009 contest, which came the summer after he had guided John Bapst of Bangor to the 2008 Class C state championship. “I don’t know if the audience liked it as well as they would a 98-97 game, but it was fun.”
Now back leading the East team into Saturday’s 30th annual Lobster Bowl at Thornton Academy in Saco, O’Connell and his coaching brethren are not as concerned a decade later about fan enthusiasm for this latest battle featuring the top graduated seniors from last fall’s high school football class.
Points should be plentiful in a game where defenses are limited in what they can do — there’s no blitzing the quarterback — and offenses spread themselves out to produce touchdowns at an ever-increasing rate.
“We have a lot of good athletes, and we hope to be able to utilize that,” Skowhegan quarterback Marcus Christopher said. “It should be a lot of fun.”
West head coach Bill County, a longtime former coach at Leavitt of Turner Center and Lewiston high schools, admits that despite a week of training camp at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft both Lobster Bowl defenses are playing from behind even before the opening kickoff on game day.
“Over the years playing defense in this game has become kind of different and difficult,” he said. “The Shriners now put forth exactly what the defense is going to play and quite honestly the defense is at a disadvantage in this game.
“The spread offense and throwing the ball around and the inside run really facilitates a big score, so I’m thinking this is going to be a donnybrook.”
The Lobster Bowl was not always that wide open.
The West dominated with defense early in the series, limiting the East to an average of 8.5 points per game while winning 12 of the first 13 games since the event originated in 1990 as a benefit contest for the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
The teams combined to average a pedestrian 28.7 points per game through the 2002 contest, but scoreboards have been tested at a much rapid rate since then — beginning with the East’s 55-8 romp in 2003.
The past 16 meetings between East and West have produced an average of 53.7 points, an average inflated slightly by the East’s record-breaking 58-52 victory in 2016. That game featured approximately 150 plays from scrimmage between the teams, and the East alone generated nearly 600 yards of total offense.
“The rules dictate what the defense can do, and the offense has some flexibility to spread out and stretch the defense in all directions and be successful,” O’Connell said, whose East squad has won four of the past six meetings — including a 40-14 decision last July — but trails in the series 19-10.
“I will say that in the 12 years I’ve been doing this the defensive coaches seem to use that as a motivator, as kind of a chip on their shoulder or an underdog story, but offensively we’re going to put kids in space and let them run around the field and do exciting things, and the crowd’s going to love it.”
Both teams will have plenty of offensive weapons to challenge opposing defenses. The East’s arsenal includes slotbacks Carter Tolmasoff of Bucksport and Javon Williams of Ellsworth; wideouts Hyatt Smith of Foxcroft Academy, Keith Pomeroy of Hermon and Reed Hopkins of Cony of Augusta; and running backs Zack Elowitch of Portland and Garrett Trask of Hermon behind an offensive line that includes 6-foot-7, 355-pound Gilbert Isaacs of Mount Desert Island in Bar Harbor.
“We’re just out here trying to compete, do the best we can and beat them,” said Christopher, who will attend the University of Maine this fall. “We’re here to win a football game, but we’re also here to support a great cause.”
The South’s big-play contingent, which will be directed by quarterbacks Tommy Springer of Marshwood of South Berwick and Carter Edgerton of Biddeford, is led by reigning Fitzpatrick Trophy winner Anthony Bracamonte, a slotback from Thornton Academy.
Also expected to figure into touchdown production for the West are running backs Tyler Bridge of Wells and Will Whyte of Bonny Eagle of Standish and a wide receiving contingent that includes 6-foot-5 Ben Onek of Portland’s Deering High School, who is bound for Division II Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire, on a basketball scholarship.
“Traditionally you try to start on defense and make sure you can get that squared away, and then go offensively,” County said. “But in this game it’s quite the opposite, and I see it in our team drills.
“The defense is at a distinct disadvantage, but it’s fun if you’re on the offensive side.”