For the first time since 2001, the Sun Journal won’t have one of our “local” teams to cover in a state championship game.
The final five of the 14 teams (including Class E Telstar) that we cover regularly from our palatial Park Street newsroom and gridirons across the Androscoggin-Oxford-Franklin country region bowed out last Friday night.
Preliminary (aka done during vacation) research indicates the last time we left the regional semifinals empty-handed was, at the earliest, 1993.
Frankly, we’ve been hanging on by our fingernails in recent years, mostly thanks to our large Class D contingent (and specifically Oak Hill and Lisbon).
Before that, we could generally count on a healthy mixture of what were then C schools such as Lisbon and Winthrop and the local Class B contingent, Mountain Valley and Leavitt, to regularly keep us busy in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. The occasional Edward Little, Mt. Blue or Jay stepped up to fill any void and keep us on our toes.
So what do we make of our unplanned footballess fortnight? Besides chalking it up to the “everything goes in cycles” cliche?
While it doesn’t look good in a larger historical context, the overall long-term prognosis for the local programs (let’s call them Local 14) looks at least slightly better than it did at this time last year.
Let’s start in Class A North, where Edward Little and Lewiston both reached the regional semifinals for the first time since 2008.
Yes, the fact that they were the top seeds and their season is over is disappointing, regardless of their conference’s proven parity. But the primary goal of both teams coming off playoff appearances in 2016 was to have a home playoff game and show that they are ready to challenge the Portland-area teams’ dominance of the region since it was formed in 2013.
Are they indeed poised for perennial contention in A North? To be honest, that hierarchy of Portland, Cheverus and Windham weren’t as strong in 2017 as they typically have been in recent years, so it’s impossible to say. One could argue playoff experience is what made the difference for Portland and Windham last Friday night, though, so that may be both programs’ next obstacle. The same can be said for Oxford Hills.
All three local A North representatives leveled the playing field with their rivals to the south in 2017. That’s not debatable. But most, if not all, of the Cumberland County contingent will return to their previous form soon (We’ll debate A North vs. South next year). The Red Eddies, Blue Devils and Vikings are still in pursuit, but the question of whether they will keep, and ultimately set the pace remains.
Speaking of pace, the core of teams that dominated the first four years of Class D’s return had to quicken theirs this year to keep up with the influx of Class C teams such as Wells, Madison, Mountain Valley and Spruce Mountain in 2017.
It’s not surprising Wells and Madison are the last two standing. Mountain Valley and Spruce Mountain may have hoped to find similar success with the smaller schools, But the main objective for both programs after recent struggles is to build towards sustainable success. Both showed significant progress, reaching the regional semifinals and quarterfinals under second-year head coaches Pat Mooney and Dave Frey, respectively.
Both the Falcons (six graduating) and Phoenix (nine) have some valuable seniors to replace, but both will also have a strong nucleus of returning players to lead them to the next step. Wells and Madison will have similar attrition, but in the unlikely event both take a step back next fall, they won’t be down for long (particularly Wells).
That makes the assignment that much tougher for everyone else, especially programs such as Dirigo and Winthrop/Monmouth, with enrollments roughly 150 short of the biggest D schools — Poland, Wells and Oak Hill.
Hopefully, the best-case scenario for D South isn’t that its top-heaviness is replaced merely by a three- or four-team hierarchy of perennially competitive programs.
In C South, Leavitt was another local No. 1 seed relegated to spectator for the rest of the year. After going undefeated against teams in their conference during the regular season, the Hornets fell to a Gardiner team that is clearly peaking when it matters most.
Anyone who saw the first Leavitt-Gardiner game, or contests against the other regional finalist, Cape Elizabeth, or Fryeburg, knew that there wasn’t much separating the top four teams in the conference. But the Hornets, who only last year were just happy to be in the playoffs with a young team, have reason to think their uncharacteristic three-year absence from their class’s final four as more as a hiatus than a trend. They do graduate some key seniors, led by captains Tim Albert, Aidan Parmenter and Nolan Cabral, but should be poised to contend again next year and beyond.
Now, we will concede that this peek into the future fortunes of the local football programs is based around the shaky assumption that the Maine Principals’ Association won’t adopt another overhaul in the near future. It still remains to be seen whether last year’s changes lead to the stated goal of more competitive balance throughout the state.
Overall, though, the future of Local 14 looks brighter than it did at this time last year.
Now, since you’ve got no more dogs in the fight, pick a favorite and ride them through the next two weeks.
I’m adopting Gardiner. How about you?