WINTHROP — The combined Monmouth Academy and Winthrop High School football team celebrated its first awards banquet as one team Sunday. The story of this unique merger will soon be the subject of a documentary about their first year.

Athletes passed a football in front of Winthrop High School as parents and coaches tended to food and talked about the season.

“What a great job the coaches did pulling these kids together,” said Roger Hanson, parent of quarterback Jared Hanson. The coaches went out of their way to make the Monmouth players feel welcome, he said.

“Little things,” like putting an M on one side of the helmets and a W on the other, Hanson said.

Parents have also been very supportive of the merger, Hanson said, adding that if there have been any complaints, he hadn’t heard any.

“Last year we struggled,” he said, noting that there had been a smaller Winthrop team and not enough players to fill in from the bench.

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This year, the numbers spoke differently all around, with about 58 kids rostered by the end of the season and an impressive 9-0 regular season record as essentially a brand new team.

Winthrop has had more than numbers to overcome through the years, as the school made national news nearly a decade ago with a string of  five suicides in the program over three years — wounds that still run deep for those families involved in this small community, according to Hanson.

At the back of the lunch room, coaches gathered around a table while parents were sent up to eat first — a small gesture for all their support.

Coach Joel Stoneton beamed about the team’s first season wins, regardless of their loss last week to Dirigo.

“We’re obviously disappointed the season ended when it did,” Stoneton said. “But looking back at it, there’s a lot of other things that are going to last in the future.

“We just felt like we should have been in a position to play for the Western Maine championships, and that’s just fresh in our mind because that just happened,” Stoneton said. “But at the same time, we’re really ecstatic about what started this year, and it’s going to continue to grow.”

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One of the things they preach to the kids is that they are a part of living history, he said.

Stoneton referred to a large plaque that will be placed in the team’s locker room. A player with his helmet held high is etched on a large wooden slab. The names of both towns flank the player, and the autographs of the first team adorn the surrounding space.

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” Stoneton said, “I continue to get all these kudos about what a great job I did, and the reality is, we did not coach any differently. We just kept coaching, and these kids deserve all the credit.

“And I’m not saying that because I’m supposed to,” Stoneton added. “The kids legitimately made this program work.”

He said that although the coaches set the tone, the kids made the chemistry.

Former Monmouth Assistant Coach Jarod Richmond, now working with the combined team, called the first season “unbelievable.”

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“Having coached with Monmouth for five years leading up to this, it was very rewarding to see the work put in by our seniors this year,” Richmond said. “Looking back on it, it’s just a tremendous feeling of pride in both groups of kids to be able to get together and make something that was bigger than an individual or bigger than a single community.”

Monmouth, who had not fielded a varsity team since the mid-70s, had been playing a junior varsity team, as well as a club team prior to joining Winthrop — a team that Richmond said played on the fairgrounds, lined by the team, with no goal posts.

While the fairground was home, it was far from cozy accommodations. Players would frequently find “spikes and different parts of rides left over from the fair,” Richmond said.

We kind of joked that whoever found the biggest chunk of metal by the end of the season got a prize.

As awards were handed out, coaches shared specific memories or anecdotes about each player, knowing each of the nearly 60 kids as well as the next.

Occasionally, a parent would interject something from the audience, even leading to an impromptu singing of “Happy Birthday” to a player who just turned 18.

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Handshakes and hugs were ample in the informal gathering of students, families and coaches who, during the football season, had dined together as a single community before every game.

The documentary

In the library, players were signing gift calendars for their coaches while Tiff Shaw moved among them with a video camera.

Shaw, an English and video production teacher at Winthrop High School, said the project all started with a Facebook message from Stoneton at the end of August when Shaw was finishing shooting another project.

Shaw remembered the conversation: “Hey, we’re joining as one team. I think it would be a great documentary. Do you want to do it?”

And like that, Shaw was planning a documentary.

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Working with her on the project were four students from Winthrop.

Dom Cojgnta, a football-playing senior, conducted off-field interviews and will assist in editing.

Collette Connor, a senior, helped film the games.

Jake Rioux, a junior, filmed a game for Shaw and helps out behind the scenes.

Mathias Deming, a sophomore, worked on still photography for Shaw.

Since starting with her production crew, Shaw said the project has become “her baby,” adding that she still has mountains of footage to sift through for editing.

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Shaw was able to acquire new technology for the group, which gave a more professional, polished look to the project. 

Securing a $5,000 grant through the Oak Grove School Foundation, Shaw was able to upgrade the school’s video capacity with a new camera.

With all the bells and whistles, Shaw said, the final price tag came out a bit more than their grant. Other funding was secured through the sales of highlight reel DVDs, as well as filming concerts and other events.

Shaw said proceeds from all DVD sales are split with the school or other groups they film for.

“My ultimate goal is to cut and tell a good enough story to be accepted into the Camden International Film Festival,” Shaw said. “I would love to win something, be nominated for something, but just to be able to get in would be huge for my program and for my kids and for the communities.”

Shaw said the goal after final production is to have a red-carpet premier at Winthrop High for all the players, parents and coaches, as well as giving a copy to everyone associated with the project.

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“Then we’ll enter it into some festivals,” Shaw said, reiterating her goal of the Camden International Film Festival, as it is specifically for documentaries.

Shaw, noting the unique nature of the project, said this year was one of opportunity for all.

“You only get to see these two teams come together as one once,” Shaw said. “After that, it’s a whole different story.”

She said they wanted to film this first season as a joint effort between the communities.

“These boys have laid the groundwork for the teams of the future,” she said. “These two communities have set the blueprint for others around the state of how to do this right, and it has been my pleasure being allowed by Coach Stoneton and the entire team to be a part of this historic season.”

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