Alex Gorham and the Dirigo High School Cougars will host Maranacook at Harlow Park in the Class E semifinal game at 7 p.m. on Friday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

DIXFIELD — Alex Gorham has stuck with Dirigo football for four years, so he’s as appreciative as any of the Cougars that their fans have stuck with them even though they moved down from Class D to Class E this season.

“They’ve been great, as always,” he said. “I’ve been to some games at some bigger programs, some bigger schools, and we were just talking about it last week at one of the games we were at, how we really, truly do have some great fans that will come out, that are loud and into the game and are always here no matter what.”

Gorham and the Cougars have rewarded their loyal backers with a 4-0 record at Harlow Park and at least one more game. Second-seeded Dirigo (7-1) hosts No. 3 Maranacook (5-3) in the Class E semifinals at 7 p.m. on Friday.

While it may not be an “official” playoff game (the Maine Principals’ Association doesn’t officially recognize Class E’s postseason), Gorham is expecting the playoff atmosphere to feel familiar Friday night.

“Any sport, the playoffs are a big time around here,” he said. 

A lot of those supporters have been coming out to watch Gorham, too. The offense revolves around him at running back, while the defense relies on his toughness and leadership at weak-side linebacker.

A four-year starter, Gorham was one of only three juniors who returned for their senior season, along with Jack Lavorgna and Cameron Kidder, to see the Cougars through the transition to Class E, with hopes of building up interest in the program.

More than half of the Cougars’ 21-man roster consists of freshmen and sophomores, so having someone head coach Jim Hersom considers a coach on the field has been vital to Dirigo’s success.

“He’s a great leader. His biggest asset for us outside of his good play is his leadership,” Hersom said.

Gorham’s good play has translated to roughly 1,000 yards gained from the fullback spot of Dirigo’s Wing T. He catches tacklers off-guard with the power he generates from his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame. He’s also one of sophomore quarterback Cole Brown’s top targets in the passing game.

“Last year, we were in the ‘I’ (formation) mostly, but this year, with him being the only veteran in the backfield, we’ve gone Wing T,” Hersom said. “He’s getting the bulk of the carries, but he gets a lot of the tough yardage, too.”

Gorham’s toughness and leadership are valuable on defense, too, where he and fellow linebackers Kidder and sophomore Liam Burnette form the backbone of the unit. 

When the Cougars are playing their best, it’s usually the defense that sets the tone. When they aren’t playing their best, it’s usually the defense that gets them through the speed bumps.

“Most of the years we’ve been here, we’ve really relied on our defense, and I think it’s the same thing this year,” Gorham said. “When our offense isn’t going, we can really rely on our defense to get us a stop and give us a second chance on offense to get something going.”

Dirigo started its season with back-to-back wins over Class C teams, Old Town and Gray-New Gloucester.  After improving to 4-0, they suffered their only loss at Freeport, 34-13. 

The Cougars bounced back to end the regular season with three wins in a row over Boothbay, Maranacook and Telstar to clinch the second seed and a first-round bye.

“We’ve grown a lot through the year,” Hersom said. “It’s a young team. We’ve got those three seniors. We did pick up two or three other seniors and they’ve contributed some, but we’ve come on and I think we’ve played quite well, particularly defensively. Offensively, we’ve picked it up and had some good games.”

“I think a lot of us were expecting (a strong season),” Gorham said, “but we’ve also had a lot of kids step up, kids just playing their part each game. Every week, a different one steps up.”

Gorham felt confident enough in his teammates that he sat out the season finale against Telstar to get two weeks of rest heading into Friday’s semifinal.

“It was nice for me. I’ve been banged up. I didn’t play against Telstar, and that last week gave me an extra week of rest to be 100 percent for this week,” Gorham said. 

“But like Coach Hersom has said,” Gorham added, “there is really no 100 percent at the end of the season for anyone. I’m used to it. I like it.”

Gorham is accustomed to facing several Class E foes, including Maranacook, because they used to square off in Class D. That has helped make this season feel like each of his first three in varsity football.

“It’s just playing football out here. Harlow Park on a Friday night, playing the same kids we’ve been playing our whole life,” Gorham said. “We’re playing football. That’s what we love to do.”

They also love to win. Dirigo last won a state championship in football in 2009, and while winning one in Class E won’t result in the same gold ball, the Cougars know they will have earned it if they can pull it off.

“We know the end goal is real close, but we know we’ve got one and maybe two real tough games ahead of us,” Gorham said. “We know we’ve got to be prepared, because if we’re not, we’re going to get knocked out.”

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