BETHEL — Telstar’s football seniors are the first class at the school to play four varsity seasons in 34 years.

The Rebels may or may not experience a winning autumn, or celebrate multiple Class D West playoff appearances. We’ll know in eight weeks.

But there’s something to be said in this up-and-down growth cycle of Maine high school football — when other schools elevated programs only to return to developmental status, or established cooperative teams with neighboring communities — for sticking it out and making it work.

“When it started it was very scattered. We were new. Nobody really knew how it felt to be on a team. Every year it seems like we learn more about how to be on a team,” four-year starting lineman Ryan Vail said. “We worked out the kinks basically. Another thing is every year, we work harder. I’ve noticed that.”

Telstar’s gridiron supporters raised more than $80,000 before resurrecting the varsity program, which had a brief, championship pedigree before folding in the early 1980s.

It existed for five years as a junior varsity outfit, going undefeated in 2010 before taking the plunge. What followed has been a baptism by fire, but one through which the Rebels can see steady progress.

“People may say about our program that I dragged my feet a little bit, but I wanted to make sure we were ready. We waited five years. We weren’t ready,” Telstar coach Tim O’Connor said. “Year one, we didn’t win a game. Year two, we won an exhibition game and then we won one regular-season game. Year three, which was last year, we won two games and made the playoffs. So the program is growing.”

The Rebels defeated Traip and Sacopee Valley in 2013 before losing at Winthrop/Monmouth in the regional quarterfinals.

Vail and tight end Noah Rose are the first Rebels to follow the path from the revived youth program in third grade all the way through to senior year. Guard Zach Wheeler and fullback Chris Chappie also have been mainstays since elementary school.

“The biggest thing is team. Bonding, being a team,” Wheeler said. “The first couple years, if we got down by two touchdowns, we were yelling at each other. It’s steadily gotten better every year. This year we feel really good about that kind of stuff. There’s no bickering on the field.”

Even after realignment, Class D remains one of the most competitive divisions in the West, with Oak Hill, Lisbon, Winthrop/Monmouth, Dirigo and Old Orchard Beach all harboring title hopes.

Monmouth, Dirigo, Maranacook and Sacopee Valley all either restarted or launched programs in the Campbell Conference in the past 15 years.

After failing to win a game in its six seasons, including a pair of forfeits due to low numbers, Sacopee scaled back to a JV schedule this season. There were times when Telstar wondered if it made the right move.

“We thought we were ready the first year, but we weren’t,” Rose said. “Every year we’ve just gotten better and better. It’s a lot different. It’s a lot faster. Everyone’s stronger. You’ve got to have your ‘A’ game every Saturday or Friday night.”

Telstar’s participation numbers remain steady at 22 to 26, second only to popular field hockey among the school’s fall sports.

“For any team, and I think for all the Class D schools, the challenge is the numbers,” O’Connor said. “The key to any after-school program is getting kids involved and having them stay. We only have 245 kids.”

Players say that the Rebels’ offensive and defensive schemes have evolved with the level of opposition.

“Our whole program has changed,” Chappie said. “The way we call plays is a lot smoother and faster.”

In addition to scoring points and chasing wins on the field, the seniors are determined to set a tone that keeps the program viable for years down the road.

Eight freshmen are waiting in the wings. Behind that, O’Connor said that the fifth- and sixth-grade section of the feeder system looks exceptionally strong.

“Offseason is just as important as the regular season,” Rose said. “If you don’t work, you’re not going to win, simple as that.”

“We’re not going to put a number of games in the paper that we say we want to win,’ O’Connor added, “but we know we’ve seen tangible progress.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.