The gains always seem to outweigh or at least offset the losses in Western Class C football.

Handcuffed by the thinnest numbers in the state, the perennially powerful small schools of the Campbell Conference find a way to fill what appear to be grand canyons on their depth chart and fight another fall.

Consider Jay, where the Tigers have the luxury of replacing an all-conference quarterback with a touted understudy who’s already arguably the best athlete in school as a sophomore.

Or five minutes up the road at Livermore Falls, where the Andies hope to alleviate the loss of a four-year starter and the league’s player of the year with another all-purpose back who’s chalked up carries since he was a freshman.

And don’t ever forget Lisbon, which is struggling to recover from a boatload of graduation losses. It’s precisely the position the Greyhounds were in last summer, when they merely regrouped and rolled to a second straight Class C state crown.

Throw in ever-present Boothbay, upstart Dirigo and legitimate hopefuls Winthrop and Old Orchard Beach, and the quest to extend the season into the first, second or third week in November is more crowded and closer from top-to-bottom than ever.

“I don’t think the people that make those predictions in the paper have any idea what’s going to happen until we’ve all played four or five games,” said Livermore Falls coach Brad Bishop, whose team lost to Lisbon in the conference championship game last autumn.

Even after a quirk of the preseason schedule allowed Jay and Lisbon a chance to see one another in person at last Monday’s scrimmage, beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Both coaches characterized the other as a team to watch.

“From what I saw, Jay would be my odds-on favorite,” said Dick Mynahan of Lisbon.

“Don’t count Lisbon out,” Jay’s Mark Bonnevie cautioned. “Look at all those kids they lost from two years ago and still won it. They’re going to do the same thing again.”

Instead of replacing outgoing seniors with incoming seniors, Lisbon will need more contributions from sophomores and juniors to contribute in order to maintain its stranglehold on the conference crown. The Greyhounds anticipate big years from QB Mike Unterkoefler, two-way lineman Steve Michaud and the new backfield of Nate Blackwell, Josh Cote and Jake Cyr.

The most experienced of last year’s playoff teams, Jay hands its offensive keys to sophomore Austin Clark. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Clark has been hailed as an heir apparent since junior high. He spent last season at flanker and defensive back before leading the varsity basketball team in scoring as a freshman.

“He’s a great athlete. He just hasn’t taken many snaps or had the reps since eighth grade,” Bonnevie said.

Senior backs Nick Bourassa and Shane LeFebvre and linemen Mike Holland and David Farrington should ease Clark’s transition.

Livermore Falls junior Kyle Stebbins is poised to step into the role of workhorse back in the Andies’ wing-T, one that Brad Bryant, Ryan Webster and Mark O’Shea all parlayed into 1,000-yard seasons. O’Shea topped 1,600 in a brilliant farewell campaign.

Boothbay’s ground game will be equally potent, operating as usual out of the deceptive double-wing.

One or two plays away from a postseason berth last season – only its second since returning to the league as a stand-alone varsity program – Dirigo welcomes back 12 total starters. The Cougars wield some versatility with sophomore Nick Crutchfield taking over at QB and Dakota Holmquist moving to halfback, not to mention a crop of linemen that starts at 300, 290 and 275 pounds.

“We play seven Saturday afternoon games,” said Dirigo coach Doug Gilbert, “so one of my major concerns is conditioning and how the big boys will hold up.”

Winthrop will adjust to life without stellar junior Jake Steele, out for the season after shoulder surgery. Brandon Kenney, Josh Confer and Jeremy Luce return to the front five and pave the way for a talented junior class at the skill positions.

Yarmouth joins the league after an 8-1 JV campaign in 2006, giving Western C an even 10 teams and a round-robin schedule without the need for a crossover game against Eastern Maine.

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