A Stearns player pursues a Medomak Valley ballcarrier while his teammates watch from the sidelines during a 2015 game in Millinocket. Credit: Courtesy of Bruce McLean

Like a lot of Maine high school football coaches, Ryan Snell wasn’t sure what to expect this fall.

After being limited to flag football a year ago due to COVID-19, his Medomak Valley Panthers returned a relatively inexperienced roster since both the seniors and juniors from the 2019 team had graduated.

That uncertainty lingered for the Waldoboro-based team after Week 1 of the regular season, when Medomak Valley was blown out at home by Fryeburg Academy 38-0.

“We really laid an egg,” he said. “Even at that point we weren’t sure what to expect so whatever we got for wins we’d take and figure it would be a growing year.”

That growth came quickly, beginning a week later with a come-from-behind, 8-7 victory at Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield. Now the seventh-year varsity program will take a five-game winning streak into postseason play Saturday as the top-ranked team in Class C North.

“Didn’t see this coming,” said Snell, whose 6-2 Panthers will host eighth-seeded Nokomis of Newport (1-6) in its regional quarterfinal. “It was hard to tell with last year off, but we had very little varsity experience returning. There were a lot of unknowns.”

What was known locally is the steady development of the Medomak Valley football program from the youth level up to a varsity team that this year boasts a robust 45-player roster.

“We’re finally getting kids that have been in our youth program since it started,” Snell said. “We’re starting to get those kids at the high school level so their families have been around football the entire time. They’re excited, they’re supportive, and they’ve been with us every step of the way.”

This year’s success includes a defense that has not yielded more than two touchdowns in any game since Week 1 under defensive coordinator Jason Stewart, who joined the coaching staff when Snell was hired as Medomak Valley’s first varsity coach in 2015.

That defense has yielded just 10.1 points per game during the last seven weeks and has been led in tackles by senior linebacker Nolan Gahagan, junior linebacker Hayden Staples, junior defensive end Tucker Holgerson and sophomore linebacker Isaac Bickford.

“They’ve just grown each week with their confidence in playing as a unit,” Snell said. “There’s not really one or two standout guys on that side of the ball, it’s truly a team effort.”

The defense complements a ball-control offense featuring Staples and senior Levi Ward, who have combined for 1,508 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.

“We run the ball, that’s no surprise to anybody who sees us or studies us,” Snell said.

“It’s a lot of ball control similar to MDI’s days under coach [Mark] Shields. It’s long drives, ball control and almost a defensive offense at times.”

It’s a style that has enabled Medomak Valley to grow steadily from its varsity infancy. The Panthers will be making their third playoff appearance in six seasons and are 24-23 under Snell’s watch.

The future is bright, too, with 13 eighth-graders set to move up to the high school ranks next fall and a football culture in the area that’s also growing with each passing season.

“We played at Oceanside [in Rockland] last Friday night and it was one of those football atmospheres I grew up going to in the Bangor area,” said Snell, who played at Brewer High School. “To see that down here finally was just awesome. There were huge crowds on both sides. It was wet, it was muddy, but both student sections were huge and they were loud. It was phenomenal. We’ve traveled well all year and our fans have really turned out for the home games, too.”

Snell anticipates a competitive Class C North tournament, and while he considers  second-seeded and perennial power Winslow the favorite, he won’t be surprised by any postseason success his own team experiences.

“Our league’s just wide open and to me it’s been that way all the way through, that anybody can beat anybody,” he said.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...