At this alarming crossroads for Maine high school football, it’s worth taking inventory of which programs advanced to the 11-man championship games, to see if we can detect any common denominators.

The elite eight: Thornton, Bonny Eagle, Marshwood, Brunswick, Leavitt, Maine Central Institute, Lisbon and Bucksport.

Kalle Oakes, Sports Columnist

If you’ve been paying one scintilla of attention to the sport since, oh, I dunno, the turn of the century maybe, nothing about that list causes your eyes to pop out of their sockets.

I’m confident any local yokel could have moved 1,000 miles away several years ago and still picked those regional champions in August without his having read anything about the current teams.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

None of this is intended as a slight against any of these fine institutions or their football systems. On the contrary, their success and continuity are what the other 70-or-so schools fighting to keep pace in the sport should emulate.

Thornton will play in its fifth Class A championship game the past eight years. Nobody nudged within single digits of the Golden Trojans in the first four. Bonny Eagle seeks its seventh state title since 2004. It’s also undefeated on Super Saturday. Something has to give between two proud entities that don’t.

Marshwood and/or Brunswick has been represented in seven of the past eight Class B finals. They’ve now kept the Gold Ball among themselves for six consecutive years. The Hawks hope to win their fifth in that span, eerily reminiscent of the manner in which they dominated the state in the 1970s and ’80s.

Leavitt has been absent since 2014, mostly due to constant reclassification and untimely injuries, but the Hornets are undefeated and loaded for their sixth state game in 11 years. Flip back to the ’90s and you’ll see when that pattern started. MCI beat a similarly storied program, Winslow, to reach the final weekend for the fifth time in six autumns.

Lisbon (3-2 in state finals since 1997) and Bucksport (1-3 since 2001) never go away. I don’t have the records in front of me, but I’ll bet you can count the Maine high school football programs with more wins in the past 25 years on one hand.

In this era of class envy and excuse-making, it’s just as common to detect squawking about the silent advantages these programs supposedly have as to hear credit for the myriad things they do well. Might as well throw Wells into this discussion, since the Warriors have been everyone’s favorite straw man during their just-now-ending streak of Class C and D championships.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: The sustained success of this upper crust is one of the primary reasons defeated opponents ask the Maine Principals’ Association to gerrymander the classes and divisions every two years. If you can’t beat ’em, avoid ’em!

Because that’s infinitely easier on the heart and soul, you know, than asking yourself what those programs might be doing to build consistency, community, commitment and culture that you aren’t.

It really isn’t any different than what the New England Patriots, Alabama Crimson Tide or Clemson Tigers execute at their level of the game. They handed one guy the keys and let him build the brand.

Thornton and Bonny Eagle hired Kevin Kezal and Kevin Cooper not all that long after their playing days at Livermore Falls and Lawrence had ended. The Scots were part of that state and national boom of the ’90s in which football programs were launched like big-box stores. Oh, to have those days back.

At Brunswick, Dan Cooper is now 100 wins into his own regime after taking the baton from Dick Leavitt, who saved the Dragons from extinction and built them into a perennial contender. Marshwood turned to Alex Rotsko, who’d “retired” to York Beach after a phenomenal career in Massachusetts, around that same time.

We old folks can remember when Doug Conn and Bill County were the faces of a championship tradition at Leavitt. Their erstwhile quarterback and understudy, Mike Hathaway, has run and revolutionized that show for two decades, showing everyone that you can make the spread offense work at a smaller school. He has been consistently invested in youth football (and basketball) activities in Turner, Leeds and Greene, building the brand and selling the Hornets’ great program as a destination from the get-go.

There’s a smaller body of work at MCI, but since his arrival Tom Bertrand has made football the identity of a campus that was once known almost exclusively for its phenomenal prep basketball presence.

Please don’t tell me you need a history lesson about Lisbon. Chris Kates is only the Greyhounds’ third head coach since the Kennedy administration. He apprenticed under Dick Mynahan, who learned the craft from Joe Woodhead. Their November history is one of snowbanks, goal-line stands, 96-yard drives and fantastic finishes. As for their opponent this weekend, I’m only guessing, but Bucksport’s Joel Sankey has to be in the conversation with Winslow’s Mike Siviski for longest tenured coach in the state.

I trust you can see the major thread that ties together the great eight. If a study in contrast is required, I’d refer you to the story last week about Spruce Mountain exploring its options with eight-man football and/or a cooperative team.

This, only eight years after two full teams at Jay and Livermore Falls played the final game of their incomparable rivalry before the schools merged. Make no mistake that the Phoenix have faced all the requisite challenges of a shrinking mill town, but so have Bucksport, Winslow and Lisbon, with half the drama and triple the success. A fragment of the townspeople have run off two good coaches in that short span, and without question the constant flux has caused RSU 73 grid numbers to shrivel and passion to wane.

Want football in your town to prosper the way it does in York County, Maine or Scott County, Kentucky? Find a good leader and get the heck out of his way.

Kalle Oakes covered the Maine high school football championship games as a Sun Journal writer from 1989 to 2015. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.


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