High school football: Ross helps Cougars make speedy recovery

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DIXFIELD — High school football coaching technology has come a long way in recent years. Instead of having to thread film through a projector, coaches can now just pop in a DVD and scout their next opponent. Instead of getting tangled up in long cords to communicate with their coaches from the sidelines, they wear wireless headsets.

Unfortunately for coaches in the Campbell Conference Class C, technology hasn’t progressed enough to have developed an RPS system.

RPS, or Ross Positioning System, would come in handy for coaches and players who have been preoccupied with the whereabouts of Dirigo senior Spencer Ross.

The Cougars’ game-breaking running back/kick returner/punt returner has felt 11 sets of eyes on him whenever he’s been on the field, and heard players and coaches call: “He’s on that side,” or “He’s in the slot” or wherever Ross has lined up for that particular play. He’s seen kickers kick out of bounds or short to try to keep the ball out of his hands, and he’s felt the painful wrath of defenders trying to physically knock him out of the game.

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Dirigo coach Doug Gilbert knows how opponents feel, including Friday night’s quarterfinal opponent, Winthrop.

“I know why they always say ‘We can’t let Ross beat us,'” Gilbert said. “Give him some open field and watch out.”

It’s a marked contrast from last year, when Ross was a key contributor to Dirigo’s state championship team. Not that the speedy Ross was any less dangerous when he had the ball in his hands.

“Last year I didn’t necessarily have all eyes on me. Well, if I did, they were in trouble because we had passing with Nic (Crutchfield) and (Alex) Miele, and we had (Tyler) Chiasson, who just ran anybody over,” he said.

Ross had a touchdown catch and a couple of big punt returns in the state championship game, but his role last season was limited to platooning at halfback with Bryan Blackman and returning kicks and punts.

“Last year, I didn’t think Spencer was an every-down back because he was 135, 140 pounds,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t think he’s survive the season. This year, he went into the weight room and put on 20 pounds of muscle to make himself an every-down back.”

At 5-foot-9, 150 pounds now, Berry still takes a pounding on the gridiron, but opponents stand little chance of knocking out him of a game. For example, he had a couple of ribs pop out during the Maranacook game two weeks ago. He popped them back into place and scored a touchdown. While taking a lap during practice the Tuesday after that game, he couldn’t breathe because a couple of more ribs had popped out.

“He won’t say a word,” Gilbert said. “You have to just watch him. The Freeport game, he got speared right in the middle of the back and never said a word. There was another game he got beat up pretty good and finally and went to him and told him he wasn’t put any pads on. You’d never know he’s in pain. He’s very tough.”

“It’s been rough, but I’ve been smaller than everybody my whole life,” he said. “I’m used to taking a beating. I have an older brother (Enrico).”

Of course, Ross would be in more physical danger if he weren’t so difficult to catch, especially when he finds daylight. He’ll usually find room to run near the sidelines, especially on returns, and he will wait for defenders to close in around him so he can turn on the speed and beat them to the corner.

“Once I get to the outside, I don’t know if I actually get a boost or what,” he said.

Ross was one of only a handful of regulars back from the title winning team, and when Blackman went down with an injury in preseason, even more of the offensive load fell on his shoulders. Running behind an inexperienced offensive line left him little room to run early on.

“It was really frustrating because we had set up our offense for two key running backs, me and Blackman, and then once we started the season it was just me, and there wasn’t much to do because once I got the ball, there were five guys on top of me,” he said.

A lot changed in Week 5, though, when the Cougars moved Jake Dowland from the line to fullback. The switch gave them a bruising back to take some of the attention away from Ross and a strong lead blocker, to boot.

“When Jake came in the Oak Hill game, it was a whole new game. If they were going to key on me, then Jake was going to run up the middle and gain eight, 10 yards at a time. It’s just helped out so much more.”” said Ross, a top student at Dirigo who is still searching for a college but has decided to be a biology/pre-dental major wherever he goes.

Ross has still managed a dozen touchdowns this year, including two on punt returns. If nothing else, the coaching staff has been kept on its toes, trying to find new and creative ways to get their most explosive player in the open field.

“We do all kinds of different things that we probably didn’t do last year, or we had them but we didn’t use them as much because we had Nic throwing the ball down the field 50 yards,” Gilbert said. “Getting him the ball in space, you know, we’ve got some plays to do that and we’ll have some more this week where hopefully we can get him the ball in space and let him do his magic.”

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