GRAY — Gray-New Gloucester’s focus in the preseason was more focused on conditioning than transitioning from seven-on-seven touch football back to eight-man tackle football.While there were shin splints and general leg injuries that needed to be worked through, head coach Brian Jahna said that the Patriots are more than ready to tackle the 2021 season.

“They’re ready,” Jahna said. “I don’t think the eight-man game is going to affect us either way. We went through that stuff the first year (in 2019); some of the blocking schemes changed, but we really figured all that stuff out that year. Now it’s about getting the guys ready physically. There are also guys who haven’t played tackle football in a couple years, and we have some underclassmen who have never played high school football.”

Senior offensive lineman and nose guard Max MacCallum is happy that seven-on-seven — which the entire state of Maine played in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — is over, especially since that style of football doesn’t offer many opportunities for linemen to contribute. From what he’s seen in the preseason, the thinks this year’s Patriots team can be competitive in the Eight-man Large School South division. 

“My excitement level is the highest it’s ever been,” MacCallum said. “I think it’s one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of and the line looks very solid, and I’m very happy. We have a lot of young guys coming up and taking roles of authority, and seniors are doing exactly what they need to do to get them there.”

Jahna has enjoyed seeing his linemen playing football again, with smiles on their faces.

“We had some that played (seven-on-seven) but they didn’t love it, they weren’t in their spots,” Jahna said. “They want to block and tackle, that’s what they do. It’s been fun and I’m excited to see them. Even seeing them in practice has been good.”

Gray-New Gloucester played Traip Academy in a preseason game last Friday, and won despite, according to Jahna, a “sloppy” start to the game.

“First drive, first play, we went shotgun and the center snapped it over my head,” junior quarterback Mikey Ryan said. “We had to punt, but three plays later we got an interception and that really turned the tide for us. That was when we were ready to go. The offense was rolling after that.”

Added MacCallum: “Ben Powell got an interception and that kind of turned the whole mood around and we started driving pretty well. I think it showed us that our offense can work together feasibly, we just can’t go out there sloppily like we did in the first. We just needed to go into the game with high energy.”

Jahna said that Ryan has been impressive this offseason.

“Mikey Ryan has been an amazing leader,” Jahna said. “He’s our quarterback, a junior, and has made it to almost every offseason program we had.”

When the Patriots began the preseason, they had between 14 and 17 players ready to play. Jahna said it’s been hard getting everyone together after such a long layoff, but Gray-New Gloucester’s roster is up into the mid-20s, and now Jahan is trying to put together a junior varsity team.

Several more Maine high school teams switched to eight-man football for this season after its successful debut in 2019. That includes area teams Spruce Mountain and Mountain Valley, who were struggling with low turnout.

“I think those teams will run into some problems that they will run into pretty quickly that you can only fix when you’re in it,” Jahna said. “Both of those programs have really good traditions and they’ll be able to fall back on those and get back really quickly. We just modified what we did in 11-man to eight-man.”

“The 10 of us that did it in 2019, it was kind of a leap of faith,” Jahna adedd. “The knee-jerk reaction was to think of the perception and all that, but the more you watch it the more you realize that it’s nice, and once you start doing it you don’t feel a difference. Once the games are going and you hear it and watch it it’s the same stuff.

“It allows us to develop JV teams, and that, for me, was the big difference. We want strong programs to develop a football program, and we want kids coming up through a program. Eight-man allows us to do that. We are right around that number. When we were at 14 to 17 I said no, but now we are in the mid-20s and have a lot of upperclassmen, so it will be a lot of hit and miss and see who is interested in playing.”

The Patriots open the season Thursday at home against Lake Region.

Jahna said that a referee shortage is the reason the Patriots are playing Thursday rather than Friday. He added that the culture needs to change in Maine football to keep referees around. 

As for the game, he said he and his players are ready. 

“It will be fun to start the season off,” Jahna said. “(The excitement) has been through the roof. I think we broke a wall against Traip. We were a little down and apprehensive, we haven’t had enough guys to scrimmage against ourselves. Our first drive was a little sloppy, but we kind of broke through and started having fun, and after that moment, that was when our enthusiasm skyrocketed.”

“We are very excited, the highest it’s ever been,” Ryan added. We are ready to go and win some football games. We are all different, we are all characters and our own selves and fun to be around all the time.”

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