Dirigo High School players, from left, Alex Gorham, Luke Lueders, Cooper Chiasson and Jack Lavorgna have been key pieces to the Dirigo puzzle this season, and know they must play their best if the No. 7 Cougars hope to upset No. 2 Madison/Carrabec in the teams’ Class D South quarterfinal.

DIXFIELD — As early as the first game of the season, even as they were celebrating one of the biggest wins in the football program’s history, the Dirigo Cougars had a sense they were in for a roller-coaster season.

Their historic 13-0 victory over rival Mountain Valley came at a cost. Senior quarterback Luke Lueders went down in the second quarter with a dislocated elbow, a devastating blow for a team that was hoping to have Lueders lead them to contention in Class D South.

But the losses didn’t stop there, and there were times during the season the Cougars and those who predicted big things for them in 2017 wondered whether they would even make the playoffs.

The playoffs start Friday night, and thanks to remarkable resilience, leadership from unexpected sources and a head coach who has seen just about everything there is to see in high school football, the Cougars will be in Madison for a regional quarterfinal.

Getting past the potent Bulldogs (7-1) may be the toughest on-field test yet, but Dirigo coach Jim Hersom and his players believe they’ve already proven they can’t be counted out.

“You learn a lot of lessons through adversity,” Hersom said. “We’ve really talked that up and preached that this year, and I think the players and the coaches have understood the message we’ve tried to send: It’s more than winning and losing. it’s learning and handling things appropriately.”

And they had a lot to handle.

Alex Gorham, the junior starting fullback, replaced Lueders at quarterback in the first game, then suffered a high ankle sprain against Madison in Week 2, forcing freshman Cole Brown to take over running the offense. Cameron Turner went down with an injury, as well, leaving senior tailback Cooper Chiasson as the only remaining starter in a backfield that was supposed to be Dirigo’s strength.

“We had three go down within the first two weeks,” Hersom said. “We had Cooper in the backfield with three other freshmen — freshman quarterback, freshman wingback and freshman fullback.”

“It seems like every week we’ve had something new,” said Gorham, who returned briefly against Lisbon, re-injured his ankle, then came back again in Week 7 against Poland and is ready to go Friday. “People just step up and fill the holes, do what we can do to keep fighting.”

The schedule didn’t give them any breaks. Weeks 2-5 presented opponents who would all end the season ranked in the top five in their conference — Madison, Spruce Mountain, Dexter (from D North) and Lisbon.

The Cougars lost all four games. Even worse, the injuries and depletion to an already skimpy roster, even by small school standards, continued.

“Our spirits were definitely down,” Chiasson said. 

“It was kind of like a shell-shocked thing and trying to gather the pieces the best we could,” Hersom added. “The kids hung in there. We came up short in three or four games. But we stayed the course.”

Hersom and his staff filled the holes with new bodies, then did what they could to plug any leaks that resulted. Brown, fellow freshmen Dallas Berry and Liam Burnette and sophomore Mike Packard helped ease some of the offensive burden on Chiasson, one of the top running backs in D South who was the focal point of every opponents’ defensive game plan.

Dirigo’s defense, meanwhile, was relying on those same freshmen and other varsity rookies to contribute. Hersom and his staff had to adjust accordingly week to week.

“We haven’t really done much different on offense because we had those three fresmen in the backfield,” Hersom said. “But we were forced to play some different defenses than we planned on.”

Defensively, Packard and freshman Henderson Gonzales emerged in a confidence-boosting 40-7 win over Orono that snapped the losing streak. But due to the injuries and three players violating their athlete contract, the Cougars were still undermanned. They dressed just 16 players the following week in a 38-14 loss to Poland.

Hersom credited his team leaders, not just the nine seniors but juniors such as Gorham and Jack Lavorgna, with helping guide the 15 freshmen and sophomores on the roster through the ups and downs while stubbornly refusing to give up their high hopes for the season.

“We expected to have a pretty good season with a lot of seniors and a lot of the core with most of us playing since freshman year,” Gorham said. “We just kept battling. We knew we had a chance. We all love football, so we wanted another chance to play another Friday night or Saturday (in the playoffs).”

“Instead of worrying about what’s going on with the injuries and having a couple of guys out, let’s just go play football and try our hardest,” Lavorgna said of their message to the team. “Myself, I wouldn’t think I’d be a leader like I am today. I had to step up and Alex had to step up. And a couple of our freshmen have stepped up and played pretty well these past few weeks.”

As those players gained experience, the walking wounded started trickling back onto the field, including Lueders. He returned last week, just in time for an 18-6 win over Old Orchard Beach that propelled them into the playoffs.

“We weren’t thinking about the stakes,” Chiasson said. “A couple of games before, we were thinking about every play and we were making mistakes. Against OOB, we kind of just played and had fun. We only thought about what was ahead of us and we played our game.”

“We feel pretty good about the kids and where we’ve got them now,” Hersom said. “Some of those (fill-in) kids have shown well, so they’ve stayed right in there, and the kids that have come back we feel pretty good about. The kids are feeling confident now. (Friday) night will tell.”

The Cougars promise Madison will see a very different Dirigo team than the one it routed, 51-6, in Week 2.

“We’re going in with nothing to lose, everything to gain, and everyone’s feeling good right now,” Lueders said.

“I think we’re a different team than when we faced Madison the first time,” Lavorgna said. “It’s great that we have everyone back now and we’re full strength going against Madison. Madison is a great team with really good players, but I think we have a chance.”

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