FREEPORT — Normally a guard by trade, sophomore Jason Hart wasn’t the only lineman running pass routes for Gray-New Gloucester during its 7-on-7 touch football season debut against Freeport on Friday night.

“It’s been super strange,” Hart said. “I’m used to the guy being right in front of me and hitting him every single time. I’m not used to, like, zones, at all.”

The Falcons outscored the Patriots, 49-0, with its varsity in the first half, then, as the teams had agreed in advance, played its JV in the second half. Gray-NG outscored its hosts, 14-6, in the second half.

Many of the Patriots are seeing the gridiron from a completely different perspective this fall with the Maine Principals’ Association allowing 7-on-7 as a substitute for 11-man tackle football, which was deemed a high-risk sport in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coach Brian Jahna couldn’t help but wonder at times over the summer whether he would coach a Gray-New Gloucester football team ever again, in any form.

Now in his third year, Jahna has been trying to lift Gray-NG from a moribund existence since taking over the program.

Last year, the Patriots seemed to have found their niche in eight-man football, snapping a 23-game losing streak and playing in more competitive games than they had in the past decade. For the first time in a long time, there was some optimism about the program potential to grow and improve.

Then COVID-19 wiped out summer workouts, as superintendents in Cumberland County agreed to delay the start of practices. Jahna and the Patriots weren’t allowed to have in-person contact until Sept. 14.

“I hadn’t seen my guys in person since mid-March, March 13th, I think it was,” Jahna said. “All summer, it was Zoomtown. That’s all we could do until September 14.”

Griffyn Gomes, left, of Gray New Gloucester High School goes up for a pass while being defended by Joseph Coleman of Freeport High School in Freeport on Friday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Jahna saw some potential positives for his program during the temporary hold on tackle football this fall. It would be something they could take advantage of to focus on the program’s foundations.

“But we also knew that we are a fragile program, and something like this, it’s hard to push through,” said Jahna, who had 15 players suited up Friday night, 14 able to play. Nearly half were linemen.

When it became clear that tackle football was out for this fall, a little over a half-dozen seniors, roughly one-third of the roster, decided not to push through with 7-on-7.

“It’s a little disappointing. I don’t think they’re letting us down,” Hart said. “Everyone has their own thing that they need to do. They were planning on coming back in the spring if they have spring football, and they just want to get money and get work experience right now.”

Jahna let the remaining underclassmen know the program’s loss was also their opportunity.

“It’s a little rough but we’ve got to move past it and focus on ourselves,” sophomore Mikey Ryan said. “(Jahna) just wants us to build for next year.”

“We’ve got a group of youngsters that we’re developing, which is exciting in its own way,” Jahna said.

The youngsters are excited to have a head start on leaving their mark, which they hope will mean finally making the Patriots a stable, perhaps even strong football program.

“We’re trying to build upon everything we have right now,” Hart said. “Two or three years from now, we want it to be so much better than what it is now.”

Depleted at the skill positions, Jahna and his coaching staff spent the first few weeks getting the players in shape and getting linemen up to speed on pass routes just so the Patriots could compete in 7-on-7. With Gray-New Gloucester using a hybrid learning model and players only being at school two days per week, those basics have had to come slowly.

As the season progresses, Jahna plans a more holistic approach, having linemen focus on playing line, for example, to help the Patriots prepare for the return of tackle football, whether it’s in the spring or next fall.

“As long as they let us be together,” Jahna said.

The Patriots had six games scheduled, but two, against Fryeburg and Old Orchard Beach, were against teams in counties designated yellow under the state’s COVID-19 assessment for schools, so their schedule took a hit before they even took the field for the first time.

“We’re scrambling (for replacement games). I’d like to pick something up,” Jahna said.

The Patriots fared much better against the Falcons’ JV players in the second half, outscoring them 14-6. But were they even paying attention to the scoreboard?

“Not much,” said Ryan, who split time at quarterback with Griffyn Gomes and threw one of the Patriots’ two touchdown passes. “We just like getting out playing with each other and having fun,”

“It feels good to just get back to something normal,” Ryan said.

Hart didn’t care about the score, either, or that he didn’t get to live the lineman’s dream of catching a pass.

“Football is still fun,” Hart said. “I mean, I come back here, number one, for the community, because I love my brothers. And two, it’s just fun. It’s fun to be out here throwing around. It’s fun to talk to someone after school. Even if we have stay 6 feet apart, we don’t have to focus on school when talking to people. It actually gives me an outlet to talk to people.”

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