Joel Sankey is beginning his 26th year as a head football coach in the Little Ten Conference, and as he sees roster sizes shrinking around the region he grows more concerned about the league’s future.
“I just wonder how long the LTC is going to be around because of the numbers for a lot of teams,” the Bucksport High School coach said.
Only eight schools — Bucksport, Dexter, Foxcroft Academy, Houlton, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Mount View of Thorndike, Stearns of Millinocket and Washington Academy of East Machias — are competing in the Class D North league this fall.
Former member Ellsworth-Sumner joined the state’s new eight-player division this year, while Orono last week dropped its varsity schedule for the 2019 season to focus on subvarsity competition with the goal of returning to LTC play in 2020.
“It’s too bad for Orono,” Sankey said. “[Orono coach Bob Sinclair] did the right thing for his program, I just hope it comes back. I hope he gets the numbers where he can compete in 11-man football where he wants to be.”
Sankey, who was born in Minnesota and went to high school in South Dakota, sees potential not only in 11-player football for those schools that can maintain sufficient participation levels, but also the eight-player version that is being introduced at 10 schools around the state this fall.
“I grew up in states where there was eight-man football and six-man football,” he said. “It’s great football. It’s wide open, the field is not as wide, and it’s very popular. It’s great for small schools that don’t have the numbers.”
Bucksport doesn’t need to consider that option anytime soon as the Golden Bucks may be bigger than ever, although not necessarily in numbers. Bucksport boasts a healthy 34-player roster — and features size throughout its lineup.
The Golden Bucks’ pursuit of their first Class D North LTC championship since 2013 will have its foundation along the offensive and defensive lines where the Golden Bucks average 250 pounds per player.
That veteran grouping is led by senior David Gross, a two-time LTC lineman of the year as well as the runner-up in the 285-pound division of last winter’s New England wrestling championships. He is joined up front by classmate Dawson Eaton and juniors Gavin Billings, Owen Gaudreau and Julian Shook.
“David Gross has really led them,” Sankey said. “I don’t think they missed a weight workout this summer, and then when they got done in the weight room they’d be up here on the field doing agility drills and footwork drills. They’ve really come together.”
Add to that group second-year starting quarterback Brady Findlay and 6-foot-4 tight end Cam Soper, both seniors; junior wideout Logan Stanley; and three running backs who average more than 200 pounds apiece in sophomores Ty Giberson and Josh Miller, and freshman Jaxon Gross — David’s brother — and Bucksport should be a formidable challenger to Foxcroft Academy’s two-year hold on the LTC title.
“We are big,” Sankey said. “It’s fun to coach them. We can throw the ball, we can run the ball. We’ll see.”
Foxcroft is 18-0 against LTC competition since its return to Class D in 2017 from Class C North, and the Ponies feature one of the conference’s top playmakers this fall.
Explosive junior Logan Martin, who scored 14 regular-season touchdowns last season — 12 on just 44 combined rushes and pass receptions — is expected to move from halfback to quarterback in order to get his hands on the ball more often.
Foxcroft has only three returning seniors on its 32-player roster and no returning starters along the offensive line.
“We’re going to go through some growing pains,” 11th-year Foxcroft head coach Danny White said.
But White likes the long-range potential of his squad.
“We’re really excited to coach this team because we know that if we can get them to take steps forward and play at a higher level, then we’re going to have the opportunity to have this group again [next year],” he said.
Two other LTC contenders could be Dexter and Houlton.
Coach Andrew Shorey’s Dexter club is 18-12 over the past three years, with an LTC final appearance in 2016 and a semifinal berth in 2017.
The Tigers return one of the more veteran rosters in the league with 17 juniors and seniors. Four starters are back along the line of scrimmage led by Haedyn Guenthner and Parker Richardson, along with returning quarterback Logan Perkins and running back Gage Stone.
“We’re certainly optimistic,” Shorey said. “We have a lot of potential there with this group.”
Houlton, 2-6 a year ago, welcomes back 12 seniors to its 32-player roster.
“We have size, skill, speed and experience,” Shiretowners’ coach Brian Reynolds said. “However like most Class D teams we don’t have depth at every position. We have depth, just not everywhere. If we are going to win games this year, it will be as a team.”
Watch: This is how eight-person football works