Waterville quarterback Liam Von Oesen (8) leads a high-powered offense that is averaging 46.5 points per game this season. Waterville meets Cheverus on Saturday in the eight-man football Large School state championship game. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The Waterville and Maranacook football teams will both be playing for eight-man championships Saturday — even though they took wildly different paths to get there.

Waterville’s done it by the book. The Purple Panthers (7-1) have been the top team in the Northern large school conference for most of the season. They’ve been as consistent as it gets, and conquerors of one opponent after another en route to a game with Cheverus for the large school title.

Maranacook, however, has dealt with strife and turmoil from Day 1 in the form of COVID issues, damaging losses and unraveling team chemistry. But the Black Bears are also showing the value of finishing strong, and as a result, will also have a chance for a Gold Ball when they play Dexter for the small school championship.

The Purple Panthers and Black Bears have been completely different stories. They’re just hoping to have the same ending.

For Waterville, this season has been the carrying out of a goal coach Isaac LeBlanc set for the team back in the preseason.

“We put Nov. 13 on our board at the beginning of the season,” he said. “We believed we could do it. We also knew it was going to be very hard to do, but we also believed we had a group of guys that could make plays for us and have a good mental makeup to battle through some tough times.”

Maranacook’s Owen Dunn outruns Dirigo’s Dakota Thompkins and Curtis Errington during last week’s eight-man small school South football final in Dixfield. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LeBlanc didn’t have to do much convincing. From the start, the Panthers were confident.

“We had a summer 7-on-7 tournament, and we had to face some really good teams then,” senior receiver and linebacker Billy Place said. “We were not giving up then, so I knew we were going places this year.”

Waterville rolled from the start, winning its first three games by an average of 28.7 points. One of those games was a 74-54 win over Camden Hills that showed the explosiveness of the newcomers to eight-man football. Waterville was quickly becoming the favorite in the conference, but the players didn’t let themselves get carried away.

“I haven’t really felt (a target on the back),” Place said. “Coach has kept us staying humble, staying in that underdog mentality, even if we weren’t underdogs during the game.”

It’s been tougher for Waterville lately, but in place of dominance, the Panthers have showed toughness. They beat Mount Desert Island without star quarterback Liam Von Oesen. They beat MDI again in a physical playoff rematch. They played what LeBlanc called their best eight minutes of the season to rally back in the fourth quarter and beat Morse last week to make the final.

Waterville’s Dustan Hunter intercepts a pass intended for MDI’s Brendan Graves to break up a 2-point conversion attempt during an Eight-man Large North playoff football game Friday at Drummond Field in Waterville. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“This team just has so much heart,” Von Oesen said. “The response to adversity has been the biggest strength in our team this year. In past years, if we were down by a couple of touchdowns, we just sat down and didn’t do anything. But this year just feels so different. It feels like, if we’re down, we’re like ‘We’ve got to get back in this game and win.'”

Adversity looked early on like it was going to be Maranacook’s kryptonite. The Black Bears (5-3) fell behind right away, as their first two games were canceled and they looked out of sorts when they finally got on the field. Rock bottom came in Week 7, when Maranacook’s frustrations boiled over in a humiliating 44-8 loss to Mt. Ararat.

“That was when we really noticed that we had to become more of a team,” senior lineman Wyatt Douin said. “That was the worst game we’ve had in a long time.”

Coach Jordan DeMillo held a meeting with his team immediately afterward. The message: The players had to step up, immediately, or a season of promise was going to be over.

“When that game happened, a lot of us were fighting each other, it was a really awful game,” senior quarterback Chris Reid said. “But in reality, that was probably one of the most useful games for our team this year, because it really showed us how picking on each other and just getting down on each other during the game makes the game awful.”

Maranacook turned things around, organizing team bowling nights and pizza dinners to strengthen the players’ bond, but the Black Bears still had to show it on the field. In the playoff opener against Old Orchard Beach, they saw a 32-18 lead cut to four points at the start of the fourth quarter.

“I blatantly said to (assistant coach) Jake (Bessey) ‘This is it, this is where we fall apart,'” DeMillo said. “And they picked each other up.”

Maranacook took over, and ended up winning 56-28.

“I was like, ‘I’m wrong,'” DeMillo said. “And that, for me, seeing them pick each other up and be positive, that was the major turning point. After that, I was like ‘All right, I think we’ve got a chance.’ These kids proved to me that really, at the height of adversity … we just said ‘No’ and slammed the door.”

Since then, Maranacook has looked like the team DeMillo was hoping for in August. Wins over Telstar (30-6) and Dirigo (50-7) followed, bringing the Black Bears one win away from a championship.

“I felt like, with games before, a lot of our players would have good games, but then other good players would not show up as much,” Reid said. “Now, I feel like, during the playoffs, everyone is coming to show up, every single game.”

The Black Bears call themselves a family now, and it’s one that can bring the school its first state title since 1981.

“It would mean so much,” Douin said. “It’d be a great feeling, and something none of us expected starting off this season.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.