The St. John Valley Mustangs defeated the Berlin Gladiators 38-6 to win the 2021 Independent Football League Championship. Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Theriault

MADAWASKA, Maine — An Aroostook football group with players on both sides of the border is now a school team, but its Canadian members can no longer play.

The Valley Mustangs operated as an individual club for years, drawing team members from both the St. John Valley and the Edmundston, New Brunswick area.

On May 3, the Valley Mustangs became a school sport in the Valley Unified school district upon acceptance by the Maine Principals’ Association. Though that’s good news for the team, it means Canadian players who were once an integral part of the team are no longer eligible to compete on the squad.

The Valley Mustangs dominated the Central Maine Eagles in a 29-14 win at the Madawaska Multi Purpose Center on September 10, 2016.

Now that the Mustangs are part of the school sports programs, only enrolled students at Madawaska Middle/High, Wisdom Middle/High or Fort Kent Community High schools can play.

There were many years where Canadian players made up a portion of the team, according to Valley Mustangs Assistant Coach Jesse Pettengill.

Pettengill said the option to play was extended to kids in the Edmundston area as a means to fill up spaces on the team.

The Valley Unified school district includes SAD 27 of Fort Kent, SAD 33 of Frenchville, and the Madawaska School Department.

Valley Unified Superintendent Ben Sirois said that because the Mustangs were part of an Independent Football League in the past, similar to a club team, there were no restrictions for Canadian players.

One Edmundston native, Nathan Thibodeau, had played on the team for one year before COVID restrictions kept Canadians from crossing the border during 2021.

“Playing for the Mustangs was an honor because we didn’t have football in Edmundston,” Thibodeau said. “I’m happy for the Mustangs to have changed divisions because there’s a lot more teams and more opportunities for the American players even if us Canadian players won’t be able to play anymore.”

All three schools voted in favor of incorporating the Valley Mustangs, a football team that has been a part of the independent Aroostook League since the team’s inception in 2005, as a new three-school cooperative, eight-player team.

It also leaves just one squad in Aroostook County — the Aroostook Huskies, which features players from the Presque Isle, Caribou and Central Aroostook schools.

Coach Ron Dalgo said that although Canadian players are no longer allowed on the team, the future is bright as he anticipates many freshmen on the squad this year who can stay with the team for three or four years to come. In addition to the varsity football team, there will also be a junior varsity team that Dalgo said he hopes will be able to feed the high school team.

Players with the Valley Mustangs football teams practiced Wednesday evening, in preparation for two upcoming games on Saturday, September 10, 2016.

“Our goals for this season is to step up and be competitive with these longtime varsity programs,” Dalgo said. “We would like to stay healthy and work hard so in the near future we can compete with all teams and look for success in the playoffs. This year we would like to be as successful as possible but also know there will be a learning curve to joining this league.”

The decision to switch from club sport to full varsity was made in the best interests of the program’s longevity, according to its coach. The union comes as the result of the independent league in Maine growing smaller.

Dalgo said that although the independent league had up to six teams at one time, recent years have forced the Mustangs to travel often at a minimum of four hours to China, Maine and Berlin, New Hampshire for games with little in the mix for competition.

“What led us to join the school was the opportunity to play different opponents and have help from the school bus system and to give these kids a chance to have football well into the future,” Dalgo said. “The advantages are huge for us at this time. We now get busing to and from games and a field with goal posts we can call our own and the major thing is having the peace of knowing the program will continue with lots of teams closer to us to play.”