Back-to-back games during Weeks 5 and 6 of the regular season could have left the Maine Central Institute football team believing its season inevitably would end short of the desired championship goal.
The Huskies dropped back-to-back home games to Wells and Winslow in early October, and there was no shame in either defeat.
Wells was coming off three straight state championship seasons, and the win over MCI was its 33rd consecutive victory. Winslow, meanwhile, had scored 262 points in its four straight victories since a Week 1 loss at Wells.
But the 115 points allowed by MCI in those two losses was cause for concern.
It turns out coach Tom Bertrand’s club merely needed to become whole again. Six weeks later, the Huskies await the chance to capture their third state title in four years when they face South champion Leavitt of Turner Center for the Class C crown at 6 p.m. Friday at the University of Maine in Orono.
“It never gets old, that’s for sure,” Bertrand said after his team’s 49-21 win over Winslow in last Saturday’s North regional final.
“This was a challenging year for us. We’ve had some bumps along the way with injuries and some grade issues and some discipline issues and just some things that were going on. Nothing major, but it’s sort of been a rollercoaster, and we hope we’re kind of on that incline right now.”
MCI’s victory over Winslow marked a stunning 52-point reversal from its 61-37 regular-season loss, and in some ways was even more dominant than the Black Raiders’ earlier victory.
The regular-season meeting included six lead changes. In the rematch, MCI took charge with 21 straight second-quarter points to build a 28-7 lead.
MCI’s defense was a different force with a title on the line, reducing Winslow’s passing game to a 4-of-19, 29-yard struggle and a rushing defense that yielded a reasonable 4.8 yards per carry — most of that after the Black Raiders turned to a double-wing formation.
“We kind of knew what they were going to run because they’ve been running the same stuff all season, and coach had a good game plan going in,” two-way All-Big 11 Conference senior lineman Harrison Sites said.
“Then they went into this new set, the double wing, and it was the first time we’d seen that all year. It took awhile to adjust.”
MCI complemented its defense with an 449-yard offense featuring All-Big 11 first-team junior quarterback Ryan Friend and senior Isaac Bussell, a first-team all-conference offensive guard who merited some postseason votes at fullback after his performance against Winslow.
Friend accounted for 293 total yards against the Black Raiders, 190 and a touchdown on the ground and 103 and two touchdowns through the air. Bussell powered his way to 135 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his second game at fullback this fall against Winslow.
“We have a lot of playmakers on the outside — Dom [Wilson], Will [Russell], Nason [Berthelette] and Elijah [Bagley] are great athletes,” said Friend, who this year has accounted for more than 2,300 passing and rushing yards. “When we need to go up the middle, Isaac’s a big man and he gets it done for us.”
Bussell was freed up to play in the backfield by a healthy line led by Sites, who was returning to full-time duty for the first time since suffering a late-season hamstring injury.
“[Sites] helps a lot because he’s a really good blocker, one of our best, and when he’s back there I know I can run behind him and he’ll block for me,” Bussell said. “The whole line blocks for me.”
Such a late-season surge is not unusual for MCI in recent years.
When Friend was a freshman starter at quarterback two years ago, the Huskies were 2-3 after Week 5 and entered the postseason seeded sixth only to upend No. 3 Nokomis of Newport, No. 2 Winslow and No. 1 Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor before defeating Cape Elizabeth 30-13 in the 2017 Class C state final.
This year, MCI entered postseason play seeded second, and now at 9-2 faces an undefeated Leavitt team for the gold ball.
The 11-0 Hornets — another diversified offensive club that ended Wells’ winning streak a week after the Warriors had defeated MCI — loom as the favorite Friday. But this championship chase has become quite familiar and even somewhat comfortable for Bertrand’s troops.
“We’ve had people out all season, so we’ve finally got everybody healthy,” he said. “It’s nice to see, and they’re coming together well.”