Six high school football teams were awarded the Gold Ball this fall, and four of the six championship games were close, decided by 15 points or fewer. Brewster Burns photo

Moments after his Thornton Academy football team capped its undefeated 11-0 season with a 42-27 win over Oxford Hills in the Class A state championship game, Trojans senior Cody Ruff talked about winning a Gold Ball in a season in which no game was a guarantee to be played.

“I knew there might be challenges along the way. We thought any challenges weren’t going to stop us. We’re going to come out, each and every opportunity we have, and work our absolute hardest,” Ruff said.

The coronavirus pandemic was a challenge virtually every high school football team in the state faced this season, which ended with state championship games in Classes A, B, and C at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium on Saturday and the Class D final at Bangor’s Cameron Stadium on Friday night. Coming off a 2020 season in which no high school football team played tackle football — only 7-on-7 flag football, if that — shame on anyone who took helmets and shoulder pads for granted.

“Hats off to all of the schools. With all of the schedule changes and all of the shutdowns and all the various interruptions they had, to get to the championship and have a today like today, a weekend like this, is tremendous,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association as he watched the Class C state championship game between Cape Elizabeth and Winslow, the final high school football game of the fall.

Seventy-six high school football teams played the 2021 season. Only 34 — 44.7 percent — were able to play a full regular season schedule. In Class A that meant nine games. In Classes B, C and D, it was eight. In the two eight-man divisions, it was a seven-game regular season. Only one region, Class B South, saw all of its teams complete a full schedule. It’s not a surprise that all of the schools in Class B South are in either York or Cumberland County, two of the counties with the highest vaccination rates in Maine.

COVID-19 was not the only reason for lost games. Washington Academy was to compete in the eight-man small school division, but dropped football in the preseason when not enough players came out. That left teams on the Raiders schedule either scrambling to find a new opponent or resigned to taking an unwanted bye week. In Class B, teams that were to face Brunswick in the second half of the season lost the Dragons when the school canceled the remainder of the season in the wake of an investigation into an alleged hazing incident involving the team.

A COVID-19 outbreak at Hermon High kept the Hawks from playing until Sept. 25, a month into the regular season. Still, the Hawks advanced to the Class C North regional final before falling to Winslow. Leavitt lost the first two games of the regular season when scheduled opponents Maine Central Institute and Hermon had to cancel because of virus outbreaks at their schools. The late start only strengthened the Hornets resolve, and they went undefeated until falling to Cape Elizabeth in the Class C South regional final.

When the six gold balls were handed out, some went to familiar powerhouses. Four of the six championship games were close, decided by 15 points or fewer. In Class B, Marshwood won its fourth consecutive title and sixth in seven seasons with a 14-13 win over Windham. A gutsy call by Coach Alex Rotsko, going for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 9 in the fourth quarter, helped seal the win for the Hawks.

In Class A, Thornton’s title was its fifth since 2012. With a 19-16 win over Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale Friday night, Foxcroft Academy won the Class D crown and its first title since winning Class C in 2012.

With 25 schools playing eight-man football, the league more than doubled from the 10 teams who played in the inaugural season of 2019. Divided into large and small school divisions, the season ended with two Gold Balls awarded Nov. 13 at Fitzpatrick Stadium. In the large school championship, Cheverus took a 56-0 win over Waterville for the program’s first title since winning Class A in 2011.

In the Eight-Man Small School championship, Dexter defeated Maranacook, 34-30, in a finish that will go down as one of the best in Maine high school football history. As time ran out, quarterback Bryce Connor scrambled first to his left, then to his right, finding Avery Gagnon for the 15-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play. It was the Tigers first championship since winning Class C in 1987, and that would not have been possible without eight-man football as an option.

In the coming months, the MPA football committee will meet to discuss the 2022 season. While this is not a reclassification year, Burnham said schools will be allowed to move to and from eight-man football if they deem it necessary. For 2022, Maine can expect tweaks to high school football instead of wholesale changes.

“When you look at eight-man and what it has done and what it has provided, some of these programs that were truly on life support come back and have strong programs, and their kids are really buying back into football. I think it’s great. I think we’ll see some transition from eight-man back to 11-man as these programs grow,” Burnham said.

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