Oak Hill is the defending Class D football champion. Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield, winless only two seasons ago, is making its first state title game appearance since 2000 and seeking its first Gold Ball in 40 years.

Yet the Raiders, who embrace the underdog role the way your long-lost aunt puts you in a bear hug before Thanksgiving dinner, appear fully convinced that nobody expects them to pull off the repeat Saturday afternoon at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.

“I think we are (the underdog) for sure,” Oak Hill running back Kyle Flaherty said. “They’re big. They’re physical. They’re undefeated. They have a lot of threats, I think.”

MCI (10-0) and Oak Hill (10-1) kick off at 2:36 p.m. as two teams that look a lot alike.

Or do they? Certainly there are common denominators. Both teams have a two-headed, juggernaut backfield that has overcome season-threatening injury. Each side has a defense that grew tougher as the calendar page flipped into October, and again into November.

Raiders coach Stacen Doucette isn’t seeing it.

“I think they’re nothing like us. They’re a very physical team. They grind it out, kind of like an old-school team where we’re going to run right at you and you try to stop us,” Doucette said. “We can do that a little bit, but I think they’re a very old-school team. They’re well-coached and well-drilled. They’re very physical, and they’ve got an attitude.”

Oak Hill’s attitude of “one heartbeat” is reflected in Alex Mace (1,851 all-purpose yards, 19 total touchdowns) and Flaherty (1,156 rushing yards, 13 TDs).

Neither rain or mud nor opposing tacklers stopped the Raiders’ senior tandem during the playoffs. The only speed bump was a hamstring injury that knocked Flaherty out of the lineup for three weeks.

He has returned for seven games without any obvious ill effects, coinciding with the Raiders’ nine-game winning streak. Oak Hill used time of possession to control its playoff wins over Maranacook (7-6), Dirigo (25-6) and Lisbon (7-6, again).

“We’ve got a hold and kind of squashed the air out of the ball, one first down at a time in the second half,” Doucette said. “I think they’re probably talking the same way. We hope to have ball-control, no penalties, play a perfect game.”

Junior Dalton Therrien has made the most of his time to throw, utilizing Mace, Matt Martin and Kyle Tervo in the flats.

“I think we work more as a collective group than we did last year,” Flaherty said. “Luke (Washburn) last year was making holes, but now it’s just everybody. The line has stepped up a lot. I think they’re doing an awesome job.”

Tailback Jonathan Santiago and fullback Eric Hathaway lead the Huskies. Each was hobbled early in the season, and MCI coach Tom Bertrand took the conservative approach, holding them out of the lineup for a month.

The Huskies simply built their depth and had no problem breezing through the Little Ten Conference. Hathaway and Santiago each have gone over the century mark in both MCI playoff victories, 20-0 over Mattanawcook and 21-7 over Bucksport.

“They’re a physical team,” Mace said. “They like to run at you.”

MCI has thrown the ball effectively, as well, with junior quarterback Greg Vigue mixing it up to Hathaway, Santiago, Austin Tolman and Mitchell Hallee.

“They’re big up front and big at the skill positions. They’re very thick,” Doucette said. “We’ve got to gang-tackle and play assignment football. Do our job.”

Oak Hill didn’t give up a defensive touchdown in four of its first seven games. The Raiders pitched a shutout in the second half of all three playoff contests.

Defensive tackle Mikey Pease (5-foot-7, 165) and middle linebacker Samson Lacroix (5-8, 145) aren’t big, but they are relentless. It has been a breakout year at linebacker for sophomore Garrett Gile, and Mace has big-play potential in the secondary.

“Our defense has played well,” Doucette said. “We bend, don’t break. That’s our philosophy. We’ve kind of stuck to it in the playoffs, and we’ve fulfilled that obligation. The seniors have played well. Samson as a defensive quarterback at linebacker has done a great job.”

MCI went 0-8 in 2012 before evolving into a playoff team a year ago.

The Huskies lost 22-0 to Winthrop, a team led by the late Lee St. Hilaire on offense and current Spruce Mountain coach Walter Polky on defense, in the 2000 state final in Fairfield.

Oak Hill is 28-5 in Doucette’s three-year tenure, including a 42-35 victory over Bucksport in the 2013 final. Flaherty and Mace combined for more than 300 total yards and five TDs.

“We talked about it on the bus ride home. (Athletic director Jim) Palmer looked it up. This senior group is the winningest senior group in Oak Hill history,” Doucette said. “Maybe only for one year, but they’re the winningest group by far. It’s ‘we.’ The kids, the community, the administration.”

Regardless of which team wins, a debt of gratitude will be owed to younger players who helped fill the void early in the season.

In the Raiders’ case, Steve Gilbert, Colby Spencer, Levi Buteau and Cruz Poirier all logged carries in Flaherty’s absence.

“It’s a soda can philosophy. Push the button and the next soda comes out. You know it’s going to come out,” Doucette said. “If a kid goes down on the field, we expect another kid to go in and do exactly what he was coached to do. We have high expectations for every kid in our program, and that goes from freshmen to seniors. To know the game plan, to fulfill the game plan, and to do the very best that they can do.”

And for the second consecutive year, underdog or not, it was enough to punch a ticket to the state final.

“Knowing what to do and where to do it and how to do it is always important,” Doucette said. “I think it’s important that the kids have already been here, but it’s still a unique and great experience, and we still embrace it and enjoy every minute of it.”

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