ELLSWORTH — Connor Crawford was somewhat surprised at what he experienced late during Ellsworth’s 42-0 eight-player football victory over Sacopee Valley of South Hiram at Tug White Stadium on Friday night — the chance to watch from the sidelines.
A week earlier, illness and injuries left Crawford and the Eagles with barely enough players to practice for their Sept. 21 game at Mt. Ararat of Topsham.
“We had only been suiting up 14 kids anyway, and with a bunch of kids out sick we had to have the coaches go in for the look team at practice,” the Ellsworth senior said.
The Eagles lost to Mt. Ararat 62-22, but that turned out to be an aberration in an early schedule that was preceded by narrow defeats to Yarmouth and Gray-New Gloucester.
The state’s 10-school eight-player football class debuted this year after being approved by the Maine Principals’ Association.
But with Ellsworth regaining its collective health and several new players emerging to add depth to the roster, the Eagles pulled away from Sacopee Valley with three third-quarter touchdowns. Crawford was able to rest late in the contest as head coach Duane Crawford — Connor’s father — turned to his suddenly deeper bench.
“It was a good game, fun to watch, and it was the first time we’ve had all eight starters on the field this year,” coach Crawford said. “It makes a big difference when you’ve got everybody out there for a game instead of trying to fill in and figure out what you’re going to do to replace the guys you’re missing one day and then they’re back and then they’re out sick again.
“It was really great to get those guys off the field, and now we’ve got three new kids who came in that next week we’ll put in pads and hopefully get them on the field.”
Connor Crawford, who plays quarterback, halfback and defensive end, rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns, threw a touchdown pass to J’Von James and intercepted a pass.
James also ran 64 yards for a touchdown while Noah Hughes recovered his own fumble in the end zone for a fourth-quarter score. Adam Inman had an interception and Jeremy Card, Riley King and Seth Eaton were leaders in the trenches for a defense that limited Sacopee Valley to 84 total yards.
“The biggest difference between tonight and other nights was our defense and having all our players back,” Connor Crawford said. “Just having everybody in practice so we could have a full squad and then a full squad to go against and then even people left over, that meant everything in the world.”
Everything in the world from Crawford’s perspective means simply having the chance to start his senior year at Ellsworth the way his previous three years at the school began — playing football.
Crawford might have considered transferring in order to play one final year of high school football had the eight-player option not become a reality at his school.
“I don’t think if we had stayed in 11-man we would have been able to field a team and have a varsity schedule,” he said. “The first two games we had just 14 players suited up, and you just can’t play an 11-man game that way. It’s not safe. You get to the point where you’re so tired you can’t run full speed and [other teams are] subbing kids in and out hitting you at full speed and that’s where things go wrong.”
Ellsworth still has one of the state’s smaller eight-player varsity rosters. But as the Eagles’ numbers approach 20 there is a growing confidence that perhaps was best expressed by the team’s performance against Sacopee Valley, which was coming a 42-15 victory over Old Orchard Beach.
“This was a must win,” said coach Crawford, whose Eagles must finish among the top four in the state’s five-team, large-school division to qualify for the eight-player playoffs.
And while the Eagles’ shortest road trip is two hours away, next week at Maranacook of Readfield, the chance for smaller football schools in Maine to continue fielding teams amid considerable momentum that more programs soon may join the eight-player ranks makes plenty of sense to at least one of the state’s pioneers in the sport.
“As you think about it, the fact that with three fewer players on the field, a team that maybe couldn’t compete in 11-man now has its best eight players on the field instead of having three weaker links out there,” Connor Crawford said. “From that standpoint the competition is going to be better because you don’t have to have those players out there who maybe aren’t ready for varsity and you still have your best players on the field.”