“These kids have had a lot of success — wrestling, baseball, basketball — they’re competitive, they know how to play, how to compete, and they’re not going to back down,” coach Jim Hersom said. “They’ll thrive on a challenge. We’re lucky in that respect, because it could be ugly if they weren’t. It kind of caught us by surprise, but the kids are dealing with it.”

The Cougars had 22 players turn out for the beginning for the football season, a lot less than coach Jim Hersom and the coaching staff anticipated. Some players decided to not play this year, a few elected to play other sports and some moved.

Add all those subtractions up, and the Cougars can barely practice 11-on-11.

“It was shocking,” senior split end and cornerback Andrew Cayer said, “but it’s something we will be able to overcome.”

Despite the low numbers, the expectations remain the same. The Cougars expect to continue to be contenders in Class D South, and they’re still talking about the state playoffs.

“We’ll compete, for sure,” senior offensive guard and inside linebacker Bryce Whittemore said. “We have a chance to make a run. As long as we keep the numbers that we have, the people that we have that are dedicated, we’ll be all right. There’s some tough teams out there, but we’ll be all right, we’ll compete with them.”

Dirigo might lack bodies, but it has plenty of experience.

Take, for instance, the defense, which returns players such as Whittemore at linebacker, Dalton Berry, Quentin Penley and Kyle Swett on the defensive line, and Hunter White and Andrew Cayer in the secondary.

“We’ve got nine defensive guys coming back from last year,” Hersom said. “So we’ve got some pretty good veterans there.”

The lack of players means a lack of depth, which means everyone is playing both sides and taking less breaks.

“It’s tougher, but with the low numbers, we’ll be a lot better come game time because everybody will be prepared to play a lot of minutes, and everybody’s going to need to with the numbers we have,” Swett said.

Swett and Whittemore, along with being starts on defense, are among the returners on an offensive line that will be key to Dirigo’s run-oriented offense.

“We have a lot of linemen that are returning, that have played before, and they’re looking pretty good, looking pretty strong,” Swett said. “We have a lot of veterans playing the line, so they know what they’re doing.”

Last year’s offense was led by athletic duo Riley Robinson and Gavin Arsenault, who guided the team to the regional semifinals. Those two have graduated, but this year’s squad also has its fair share of athleticism.

“We’ve got some pretty good natural athletes carrying the ball. Some decent speed,” Hersom said. “Hunter (White) is a good athlete, Cooper Chiasson’s a good athlete, and Cam Turner’s a good athlete.”

Robinson was a three-year starter at quarterback. The job this year goes to junior Luke Lueders, who is moving over from running back.

“He’s developing into a quarterback very well and very quickly, so by the time we start getting into games, he’s going to be ready to go, 100 percent,” Whittemore said.

The lack of players puts even more of a premium on players staying healthy. It also makes conditioning more important. The onus for balancing those two physical factors falls on the coaches.

“As coaches, we’ve got to be careful,” Hersom said. “We’re trying to cut back on their reps, just service what we need to service, and get them in, get them out, keep them excited, keep them hungry.

“It’s a fine line. We’re talking all the time, OK, how much running do we want to do today in practice? Right now, they’re extremely sore. So we’re just trying to bring them back gradually, but we fully know that we got to continue to do some things conditioning that are going to help us.

“Fine line.”

White said low numbers won’t be an excuse.

“We just go harder. Just got to get ourselves ready to play a lot of time,” White said. “Just a lot heart and dedication. Coming together, not arguing, we’ve got to be more of a family rather than a team.”

Good health willing, this small Dirigo squad could be a formidable group.

“If we can hang together for the season, we’ll be tough to beat at the end,” Hersom said.

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