Ben Porter of Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale stiff arms an Oak Hill defender during Saturday’s game in Wales. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

These days, the powers that be in Maine high school football are always looking to generate some of the most alluring matchups possible.

Realignment made that naturally easier in 2024 in the form of some new league showdowns — and elsewhere, some of the crossover matchups have players, coaches and fans across central Maine salivating.

“I think you have some really great things playing out right now,” said Joel Stoneton, Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale/Kents Hill head coach and a member of the MPA Football Committee. “You have some eight-man teams that have moved back to 11-man, and you have crossovers that are going to generate a lot of excitement.”

Indeed, there’s been a massive shakeup in Class D, where four teams previously in the eight-man ranks are returning to 11-man football. Maranacook is back after four seasons of eight-man ball, and Dirigo, Mountain Valley and Mattanawcook Academy have returned after three.

The result? A Class D full of intriguing contests for Maranacook. The Black Bears open at Mattanawcook, whose head coach, Brad Bishop, coached two of Maranacook head coach Skip Bessey’s sons at Messalonskee. They also play at Winthrop, just 9 miles away, in Week 7.

“The games to circle for me are the Winthrop game and that Mattanawcook game,” Bessey said. “That will be our first time ever in an 11-man game against Mattanawcook, and that Winthrop game is going to be spectacular. A lot of the (Maranacook and Winthrop kids) know each other, and Joel and I go way back.”

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As a result of a scheduling quirk, Maranacook and Dirigo will play seven regular-season games with the former earning a bye in Week 3 and the latter idle in Week 5. All other Class D teams will play eight regular season games.

Oak Hill, which went 6-4 last season and finished as the No. 2 seed in D South, hosts Winthrop in Week 4 before playing at reigning state champion Wells in Week 5. The Week 4 matchup between the Raiders and Ramblers will be a rematch of last year’s regional semifinal, which Winthrop won 17-14.

Winthrop, which returns the bulk of last year’s 7-4 team, is back under the guise of Stoneton, who previously coached the Ramblers from 2004-13. In addition to the Oak Hill matchup and the Week 7 Maranacook clash, the Ramblers also host Leavitt in Week 1 and host a Thursday night game against Mountain Valley in Week 6.

“I think being able to play Mountain Valley in that Thursday night game will really generate some excitement and break up the rut of the season,” Stoneton said. “As a general rule, I think you might see some more Thursday games from now on just because officials are becoming so limited.”

Class D North will feature some central Maine battles early as Winslow opens against Maine Central Institute in Week 1 and travels to face Madison/Carrabec/Valley in Week 2. MCI will play at Madison in Week 6, while the Bulldogs will head on the road to play Maranacook in Week 8.

LEAVITT VS. CONY

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With six local teams, no league in Maine is more central Maine-heavy than Class B North’s Pine Tree Conference. Lawrence won the regional title last year at 8-3, but Cony (7-4) and Messalonskee (7-2) also put together memorable seasons. All three look set to contend again in 2024.

Cony has plenty to be excited about given its success as a sophomore-laden team a year ago, but the Rams will be tested. First, they’ll face Messalonskee in Oakland in Week 1 before hosting Lawrence in Week 2. They’ll then play at Falmouth in Week 3 and Leavitt in Week 4 before hosting Scarborough in Week 5.

“We’re playing the teeth of our conference early on, so if we aren’t ready, we could get off to a slow start,” said Cony head coach B.L. Lippert. “Leavitt for their homecoming on a Saturday will probably be a mob scene, and with Scarborough and Medomak (Valley) after that will be another challenging stretch.”

Cony ball carrier Parker Sergent tries to break free from Messalonskee tackler Mitchell Marquis during a Class B North semifinal game Nov. 6 in Oakland. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

There’s also the Cony-Gardiner game, which is set for Week 7 in Augusta after being the regular-season finale in 2023. Although Lippert would prefer to see that game in Week 8, playing another regular-season game after an emotional rivalry game, he said, could provide for a chance to refocus ahead of the playoffs.

Lawrence, which opens its regional title defense at home against Gardiner in Week 1, plays on the road against Skowhegan in Week 3 before hosting Messalonskee in Week 5. The Eagles will host the Tigers in Week 4 and travel to face a River Hawks team looking to bounce back from a 2-7 season in Week 6.

“I think this is the deepest the league’s been in a long time, and I think you see that when you look at the schedule,” Lippert said. “You’ll have those teams that all the pundits rank one, two and three, but four, five and six are going to be good, too. It’s been a while since there’s been this much depth.”

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For the second year in a row, Nokomis will be the only central Maine team in Class C. The Warriors, who went 4-6 last season, will be in the six-team North alongside Brewer, Hampden Academy, Hermon, Medomak Valley and Oceanside.

Much to the chagrin of head coach Jake Rogers, Nokomis will not face reigning regional champ Oceanside. The Warriors will face the rest of Class C North, though, and also have home games against Gardiner (Week 3) and Skowhegan (Week 7) that have the full attention of their head coach.

“I like our schedule outside of not getting Oceanside, but my biggest hope is that we can put forth a better effort against Class B teams compared to what we did last year,” Rogers said. “We didn’t have a good offensive game in any of our losses, so that’s going to be a focus for us going into the summer.”

There are some changes in the eight-man ranks, where the Large School class has shrunk from two divisions to one statewide league. Teams in both the Large and Small School classes will also play eight regular-season games this year after playing seven from 2021-23.

For Waterville, two particularly intriguing games will come at the end of the season. The Purple Panthers will be on the road against Small School powerhouse Old Orchard Beach in Week 7 before hosting a Mount Desert Island team that’s given some great battles the past three years in Week 8.

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