The 12-team Pine Tree Conference Class B lost a perennial contender in Brewer to Class A and filled the void with a fledgling Nokomis program, but don’t try to tell the conference’s veteran coaches that the PTC slate has gotten any easier.

“It’s a tough eight-game schedule. There aren’t many easy ones in there,” Leavitt coach Mike Hathaway said.

Defending conference champion Winslow and runner-up Gardiner are likely to be the toughest ones. Winslow lost some dynamic players on offense, including game-breaking running back/returner Justin Lindie, but the Black Raiders have a habit of reloading. Gardiner gets the nod as the favorite with the return of quarterback Kyle Stilphen, running back Brad Carleton and many of their blockers.

Hathaway’s Hornets close their season with what he calls a telltale stretch for his young squad – Hampden at home, Morse on the road, Belfast on the road and Gardiner at home. The coach hopes that his young team will have had enough seasoning by then to be playing its best football.

Leavitt’s roster has just eight seniors, but the Hornets are not as green as their home jerseys. Many of the underclassmen saw considerable action as freshmen and sophomores last year. They have enough experience that Hathaway is toying with the idea of having 22 different starters on both sides of the ball.

“We’ve got some learning to do, but we’ve got some depth,” Hathaway said. “We’re playing a lot of guys, and with a lot of guys we’re hoping we can wear some teams down.”

A lot of defenses will get worn down chasing down returning QB Evan Barker and tailback Tyler Green. Green topped the 1,000-yard plateau, and Barker added another 850 on the ground last year. Hathaway is expecting bigger and better things this year.

“They’ve both raised their game to another level,” he said. “They’ve looked really good. Those guys, you can tell just the way they are in the backfield together, everything clicked pretty early because they’re so used to working with each other.”

Barker, who led the conference in scoring last year, will work out of the shotgun once again and should top the 1,100 yards he gained through the air with Green. H-back Jeff Newton and a pair of receivers who saw a lot of time as freshmen last year – split end Cam Griffin and slot receiver Josh Strickland – are back in the fold.

An improved defense with more experience should take some of the pressure off the offense. Mac Conant, a 6-foot-3, 275 pound all-conference defensive tackle last year will clog the middle, along with nose tackle Chris Hill and 280-pound defensive tackle Calvin Rose. The Hornets have a good mix of size and speed in their front seven.

Waterville could boast one of the top defenses in the league before the year is done, but the return of athletic quarterback Dan Hussey, who transferred out of state prior to last season, could make the Purple Panthers’ offense even more potent. Morse has arguably the most dangerous running back in the conference in Darrus Grate and, much like Leavitt, is counting on a number of underclassmen to step up after getting their feet wet last year. Belfast continues to be a mainstay in the PTC playoff picture, and Hampden should continue its steady improvement.

Another team counting on its underclassmen to lead it into playoff contention is Oak Hill. The Raiders have 20 juniors and 15 sophomores, many of whom were waging fierce position battles during the preseason.

“We don’t have a lot of gaps to fill, but we’re still young,” Oak Hill coach Bruce Nicholas said. “Hopefully, we’ve got good depth, maybe more than we’ve ever had.

“Replacing the quarterback is the big thing for us,” he added. “We’re going to have to control the ball more, maybe roll-out more and more play-action, as opposed to dropping back and just firing it up.”

First, Nicholas has to settle on a starting quarterback to replace the rifle-armed Josh Jillson. Junior Josh Sirois and sophomore Brett Turcotte were alternating series during preseason scrimmages.

Running backs Nick Brown, Drew Jannelle, Clyde Tibbetts and Kamar Banton will split the carries.

Defensively, the Raiders are going from a seven-man to an eight-man front in hopes of shoring up a unit that gave up too many points too easily last year.

“I think we’ll tackle better,” Nicholas said. “We’ll be more aggressive and we’ll cover our areas better.”

Led by Dave Evans, a former coach at Edward Little who also guided Dexter and Stearns to Class C state titles, Nokomis joins the league after spending last year scrimmaging PTC Class A schools during their bye week last year.

Maranacook welcomed new coach Greg Norwood enthusiastically, if the nearly 50 percent increase in the number of players is any indication.

The Black Bears have nearly their entire offensive and defensive front returning and the potential for a strong running game with running back Jake Hewett.

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