A year ago, the Rockland High football team was among three teams that tied for third and fourth places in the final LTC Class C football standings.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, there was room for only two of those teams in the playoffs – and in that battle they were third best.
“Last year it came down to the Crabtree points and we were the odd team out, but the two teams that finished ahead of us [Orono and Bucksport] beat us on the field, so we could live with that,” said Rockland coach Daryle Weiss. “This year we just want to win enough games so we can leave worrying about the point system to someone else.”
At 5-2, Rockland already is assured of its fourth straight winning season with two games remaining, and one more win would mark the best finish for the program since 1981, when the Tigers went 7-0-1.
One more win also likely would secure Rockland’s first playoff berth since 1988, though the road ahead is filled with challenges as Weiss’ club battles Bucksport, John Bapst of Bangor and Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln for the three remaining playoff berths behind top-ranked and undefeated Foxcroft Academy.
This Friday the Tigers visit 4-3 Mattanawcook Academy, an Eastern Maine Class C finalist in 2005. One week later, Rockland hosts 5-2 Bucksport in its regular-season finale.
“We know that in order to be in the playoffs we’ve got to beat some playoff teams, and I don’t think we’ve done that yet this year,” said Weiss. “The next two weeks will determine if we’re a playoff team.”
Rockland was 5-2 entering Week 8 last season but couldn’t get that one more win. MA handled the Tigers 51-12, then Bucksport rallied from a 14-6 halftime deficit for a 30-21 victory.
This year, the Tigers hope defense makes the difference.
Since a 27-26 loss at John Bapst of Bangor in Week 4, Rockland has won three straight and outscored Old Orchard Beach, Dexter and Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield by a combined 94-17 thanks to a defense installed by new defensive coordinator Archie Stalcup, the former LaSalle University head coach who retired to the midcoast and joined Weiss’ staff this season.
“Defensively we’re starting to jell,” said Weiss of a unit anchored by middle linebackers Vern Kvorjak and Sam Weiss. “The kids are getting a good concept of what our defensive coordinator is teaching them.
“For the first time in six years we have 11 guys out on defense and all 11 guys are playing hard on every play.”
The defense has grown to complement an offense that has had little trouble scoring since Rockland opened the season with a 42-14 loss at Foxcroft. The Tigers have averaged more than 33 points per game in their last six outings.
The lone exception to those high-scoring ways came in the team’s most important win to date, a 14-9 victory over Old Orchard Beach the week after the narrow loss to John Bapst.
“After we lost at John Bapst by a point, I thought the kids began to realize that they had to trust each other and trust what we’re doing,” Weiss said. “Since that game, every game is a playoff game for us. OOB was a playoff game, Dexter was a playoff game, MCI was a playoff game and Mattanawcook and Bucksport are playoff games for us.”
Rockland will get a boost for its final two games from the return of senior tailback Mike Marsh. A 1,000-yard rusher as a junior, Marsh had 617 yards this season before suffering a broken hand in the Old Orchard Beach game.
Junior Mark Boynton has filled in admirably with nearly 300 rushing yards and six touchdowns, but the Tigers are looking forward to re-integrating Marsh into an offense directed by junior quarterback Andrew Weiss.
“Mike is still the totally explosive running back he has been for us,” coach Weiss said. “He practiced [Monday], and it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. He’ll bring an emotional boost with him, too, because the other guys know how important he is to us.”
Ponies’ depth shoulders the load
While the other LTC Class C football contenders battle for playoff position, Foxcroft Academy is finding the top of the standings quite comfortable.
The 7-0 Ponies have remained unbeaten without recent challenges, however.
Two weeks ago coach Paul Withee’s club trailed in the fourth quarter before rallying past Mattanawcook Academy 21-15 in its toughest test to date.
Last weekend, Foxcroft played without its leading rusher and tackler, senior Brad Bellemare, who was sidelined for the Ponies 53-6 win over Stearns of Millinocket with a shoulder injury.
No matter. Senior David Frasz scored three touchdowns, and classmates Mike Winkler, Justin Hanson and Shaw Weeks and sophomore Wade Witham each scored his first career touchdown as the defending Eastern Maine champs extended their regular-season winning streak to 15 games.
Add to that group juniors Shane Adkins and Ben Provost, and the Ponies have a stable of backs that not only provides depth unmatched in Class C, but also can overcome an injury to one of its brethren.
“It’s a nice problem I knew I had at the beginning of the year,” said Withee.
Yet amid that depth Bellemare has stepped forward this fall on both sides of the football. He leads Foxcroft in rushing with 595 yards and 10 touchdowns on 77 carries, and also is the team’s leader with 61 tackles while playing free safety in the Ponies’ 4-4 defense.
“He’s our Mr. Everything,” said Withee. “He also kicks our extra points, and he was being looked at during preseason at possibly being our quarterback. He’s 150 pounds soaking wet, but he runs hard between the tackles.”
Bellemare was named LTC player of the week for leading the Ponies to a 30-0 victory at Bucksport in Week 3, but had his best game against Mattanawcook, rushing for 151 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries, including a 55-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run after MA had grabbed a 15-14 lead. He also had a key punt return to set up a Foxcroft touchdown, kicked three extra points and was in on 14 tackles.
“He’s a very quiet kid, but he’s worked very hard to make himself a good football player,” said Withee, who added Bellemare may return for Saturday night’s game at John Bapst of Bangor, but may sit out another week to rest his shoulder.