Monday marked the first day of practices for fall sports at Maine high schools, and football teams across the state were excited to get back to what they expect will be a normal season.

Last year, Maine was one of just four states that did not have a tackle football season, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. High school teams were allowed to play 7-on-7 flag football last fall, games that emphasized passing.

For Zachariah Oja, a senior running back/linebacker at Bonny Eagle High, the start of practice meant everyone was together again. Linemen, for the most part, did not participate in 7-on-7 football last fall.

“They didn’t even get a chance to do anything last year,” he said. “And those are the most respected positions on the field, in my opinion.”

In late May, the Maine Principals’ Association announced that all sports would be offered during the upcoming school year – including tackle football. Some schools wasted no time getting on the field Monday.

The Bucksport High football team kicked off the season with a short midnight practice. The team conducted stretches and ran through two-minute offense drills for a half hour under the lights, according to Coach Joel Sankey. Bucksport had started its season with a midnight practice a few times in recent years, Sankey said, but hadn’t decided to do so this year until late last week.

“It was kind of exciting for the kids. There were a lot of parents there,” Sankey said. “We’d done it before and in the weight room I mentioned it to them and they were excited to do it … It was unique because we hadn’t played football in so long.”

In Portland, the Cheverus High team hit the field at 8 a.m. for the first of two practices Monday that marked the beginning of a new era of football at the school.

Cheverus is one of 16 schools joining the state’s eight-man football division this fall. Those schools planned to begin eight-man play last year until the season was called off. They will join 10 other teams that first started playing eight-man football in 2019.

“It’s definitely a big jump, but it’s the same team. It’s the same program. It’s Cheverus football,” said senior Sebastian Merrill, an offensive guard/defensive end.

Cheverus had 40 players at Monday morning’s practice, which ran for 2 hours and 15 minutes, with a second practice scheduled for late afternoon. The Stags wore their yellow practice jerseys and gold helmets, with shoulder pads not allowed under Maine Principals’ Association rules until the third day of practice.

The turnout was higher than the 32 players who played for Cheverus in 2019, when the Stags played 11-man football. Another season of 11-man would have forced Coach Mike Vance to play students not ready for varsity football.

“What this allows us to do is, we don’t have to start multiple 14-year-olds on the interior line of scrimmage, and that’s what we’d have to do in 11-man,” Vance said.

The Stags open the regular season on Sept. 4 at home against Yarmouth. After a season of flag football, the players are eager to get back to the real thing, even in a slightly altered form.

“We had passing league all of last year, so it was nice to get familiar with all the plays, but getting back out here is going to be good. I’m excited to get started with the season,” said senior Marshall Fowler, a running back/linebacker.

In Standish, the 2019 Class A state champion Bonny Eagle Scots began with a 2-hour practice before getting on a bus and heading to Camp Caribou in Winslow for a weeklong camp.

With no 2020 season, and with many players making their varsity debuts, Coach Kevin Cooper wanted his players to know that they have to set their own standards this year. As practice ended, he called his 36 varsity players together and told them, “It’s time to go with everything you have. This is not freshman ball. This is varsity. And you will be evaluated on everything you do.”

Bonny Eagle High football coach Kevin Cooper makes a point during a drill Monday in Standish. Monday marked the first day of practices for fall sports at Maine high schools. Mike Lowe photo

Cooper isn’t worried about defending the 2019 title. “How long do they call the defending champs the defending champs? Maybe this week and next week?” he asked. “That’s not a long-lasting title. So whether we won that title last November or two Novembers ago, we’ve got to come out here and work hard. This is a new year and a new team and we’ve got to try to go out and win another.”

His players know that.

“Even though we’re still state champions, we feel we have something to prove, said senior wide receiver/defensive back Aidan Walcott, the Varsity Maine boys’ outdoor track Athlete of the Year last spring.

Walking on the field as a team for the first time since winning the state championship meant something to the Scots.

“It was like Christmas morning, I think,” said Cooper. “We’ve been waiting for it for so long. To actually finally have it here was pretty special. ”

Before they practiced, the Bonny Eagle players had to take a COVID-19 test before being allowed on the bus to Camp Caribou. Everyone tested negative, according to Cooper. “That’s a good feeling,” he said. “And now we’re going up there and  it will be like we’re almost in a bubble.”

But, he added, the rise in COVID-19 cases casts an uncertain shroud over the season. “There’s obviously the specter that it can get derailed at anytime based on the virus,” said Cooper. “I think the only way you can really deal with it is realizing it’s out of your hands. We will do everything we can in all aspects of running the football program.”

But on Monday, for the players, there was simply joy to all be back together again, especially for the seniors.

“It’s our last year,” said Walcott. “It’s something we’ll never be able to get back.”


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