Playoff appearances, undefeated regular seasons and even state championships are not so much cause for celebration as a public expectation of the Mountain Valley High School football program.

It’s too much of a burden for any team, in any sport, at any level. Much less high school kids. Specifically, high school kids who’ve experienced most of that tradition while standing on a muddy sideline or behind the rope.

So here’s the deal: the Falcons will be one of the teams to beat in the Class B division of the Campbell Conference this season. They’ll assuredly be a better team on the Friday before Halloween than the Friday before Labor Day. They’d love to be still playing on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

And let’s leave it at that.

“That’s what we expect, and I guess the problem is that’s what everybody expects,” said Jim Aylward, beginning his 19th season in charge as the only head coach Mountain Valley has known.

“I have a group of nice kids who maybe aren’t the meanest, toughest kids I’ve ever coached. Don’t feel bad for us, though.”

Oh, there’s no danger of rampant sympathy. Not with Mountain Valley returning Justin Staires, arguably the premier player in the conference and still only a junior.

A monster in the secondary throughout his career, Staires’ ability to run and catch made him the ideal offensive utility player for last year’s state championship team. Now he’s a leading candidate to succeed conference player of the year Andy Shorey as the Falcons’ quarterback.

“He’s going to play everywhere for us,” said Aylward.

There are plenty of ties to the team that won its second Gold Ball in three years last fall. Matt Laubauskas returns at fullback and linebacker. Dean McCrillis brings experience at tight end and defensive end. Derek Sicotte will start at flanker after shining as a defensive back last season.

But sophomore Ryan Laubauskas is the most decorated returnee to an offensive line that must be almost completely rebuilt.

“We’re getting there. We’re just terribly inexperienced,” Aylward said. “We have a lot of work to do, but I’m willing to do it.”

Cape Elizabeth is the team most capable of knocking the Falcons off their familiar perch. Soundly beaten in the Western B final last November, the Capers now flaunt 15 seniors, including QB Jim Bump and RBs Sean Meagher, Andrew Moulton and Tom Ray. Junior Nathanael Lavallee leads a hefty front five.

Preseason excitement in Fryeburg hasn’t been this high in the current Raiders’ lifetime. Complementing the excitement of a new, state-of-the-art gym and training facility to replace the one leveled by an arsonist two years ago are 17 returning starters, including QB Preston Jones, speedster Sequoyah Reynoso and four-fifths of their offensive line.

“If we can get that fourth playoff spot, it would be a huge thing for our program,” said Fryeburg coach Jim “Fuzzy” Thurston. “Of course, inevitably our reward would be a trip to Rumford to go play Mountain Valley on a Friday night.”

York, Wells, Greely remain strong contenders in a league that’s evenly split between longtime members and green, upstart programs.

Two of those relative newcomers, Gray-New Gloucester and Poland, will add elements of surprise and excitement this fall with dramatic overhauls to their offense.

G-NG won four games with the ground-oriented, clock-chewing double-wing attack last season, but new head coach Chris Nelson has thrown out that blueprint and installed a spread offense. It’s much like the four-receiver sets Mt. Blue, Leavitt and Jay have used with success in this decade.

“It lets your playmakers make plays,” Nelson said. “You don’t just have two wingbacks, a quarterback and a fullback carrying the ball. We have four wide receivers, and any of them could get the ball thrown to them.”

Sophomore Taylor Valente is the triggerman for the Patriots, with Nick Audet beginning his third year as a starter in the backfield and at linebacker.

There’s an even more dramatic look at Poland: No running backs.

“We call it ‘five wide’ or ’empty.’ That’s what we are. We’re empty,” said Knights coach Rick Kramer. “It’s high school football. Whoever scores the most points wins. And if you can’t stop somebody, you’d better be able to score with them.”

Tyler Steinman begins his second season under center with a wide receiving committee that includes Mike Whalen, Trey Ouellette, Justin Paquet, Matt Seger and T.J. Rand.

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