For the eight survivors of the Pine Tree Conference Class B football regular-season wars, this weekend marks a new season – the playoffs.
For at least two of the teams in the field, it also marks a new beginning of sorts.
Fourth-seeded Hampden Academy will play an Eastern Maine Class B quarterfinal on its artificial-surface home field for the first time when it squares off against No. 5 Belfast on Friday night.
Sixth-ranked Mount Desert Island, a program that endured a winless season just two years ago, will return to the playoffs for the first time since 1998 on Saturday when the Trojans visit No. 3 Waterville.
While Hampden also qualified for postseason play last year, this will mark the Broncos’ first home playoff game since 1998, when the program last won an Eastern Maine championship.
“When we told the kids that they were pretty excited,” said Hampden coach Harry McCluskey. “I think they’re pretty proud to have a home playoff game.”
Save for undefeated and top-seeded Gardiner and No. 2 Winslow, the Broncos are the hottest team in the league, rebounding from a 1-3 start to take a four-game winning streak into their playoff debut.
Wins over Brewer and Belfast midway through the season spurred the recent hot streak, a streak whose foundation is based in a strong running game behind a veteran offensive line.
“We have won four in a row,” said McCluskey, a former 4A high school coach from Texas, “but I think the thing that has helped is that the kids have come from behind in games and had some success in the fourth quarter.”
That Hampden and not Belfast is hosting their quarterfinal stems from their earlier head-to-head meeting, in which the Broncos took a 31-28 lead with four minutes left and then held on for the win when Belfast drove down the field only to fumble near the goal line.
“It was a real battle,” said McCluskey, “and I expect when we play them Friday it will be another tough game.”
For MDI, a return to the playoffs this year represents a major step forward for a program that finished 0-9 in 2004.
“That was definitely our biggest goal this year, to make the playoffs,” said fourth-year MDI coach Mark Shields, “and I thought we had the caliber of team to get in the playoffs.”
MDI’s ascension to a quarterfinal date at Waterville on Saturday afternoon marks a high point in a four-year rebuilding process within the program.
“This senior class came in as freshmen with good numbers and pretty good talent,” said Shields, “and we thought this was a class we could build around. It was the first group to come through our youth program, the Acadian Football League, and now all four classes on this year’s team have come through and that’s been a big help.”
MDI opened the season with three straight wins, including a 19-0 homecoming victory over Hampden Academy, and in Week 5 the Trojans rallied from a 27-12 fourth-quarter deficit to beat Morse 28-27.
The steady improvement over the last two years has raised the program’s profile on the island.
“It’s been a big plus,” said Shields, “a very, very positive thing. Everyone’s excited, and it’s nice to see the kids get the recognition they deserve.”
“Now when people talk about MDI football, it’s in a positive light.”
Other Eastern B quarterfinals this weekend have No. 8 Morse at No. 1 Gardiner on Friday night and No. 7 Leavitt of Turner Center at No. 2 Winslow on Saturday. Gardiner defeated Morse 56-0 last weekend, while Winslow was a 44-8 winner over Leavitt in Week 1 of the season.
Shields sees Gardiner and Winslow as the favorites to win the regional title,
“Gardiner and Winslow seem to be the cream of the crop,” Shields said. “But I’ve said all along that this is an extremely competitive conference. I thought looking at the conference this year that there were five or six of us that on any given night could win or lose if we were paired up, and we were fortunate enough this year to get five wins and get in.”
For Witches, a narrow miss
The Brewer Witches, one year removed from a state championship, missed out on this year’s Class B playoffs in part due to the structure of their own conference.
Brewer finished with a 3-5 record and with the eighth-most Crabtree points in the Pine Tree Conference ranks – and eight teams make the playoffs.
But the PTC B is split into two divisions, with four teams from the North and four teams from the South qualifying for postseason play.
Because Brewer finished fifth in the North, it did not qualify for the playoffs while 3-5 Morse of Bath made the field despite finishing with fewer Crabtree points than the Witches because the Shipbuilders placed fourth in the South.
Making that turn of events perhaps even more difficult to take is the fact that Brewer defeated Morse at Bath 20-6 in a head-to-head matchup during Week 1 of the season.
This actually marks the second straight year such a scenario has played out in the PTC Class B ranks.
Last year Oak Hill of Wales earned a playoff berth despite having fewer Crabtree points than Mount Desert and losing to the Trojans during Week 2 of the season.
But Oak Hill made the playoffs because it finished fourth in the South, while MDI placed fifth in the North.
“For us last year, we weren’t extremely disappointed,” said Shields, whose team improved from 3-5 in 2005 t0 5-3 this fall. “We were still in a transition period as a program, and we ended our season with a good victory over Old Town so we felt pretty good about where we were at the time.
“But I do feel for Brewer, because they beat us and they beat Morse this year.”
Around the state
A familiar name leads the eight-team field that begins play in the Western Maine Class A football playoffs this weekend. Two-time defending state champion Bonny Eagle of Standish used a 35-16 victory over previously undefeated Gorham on Saturday to land the top seed for the regional tournament. Coach Kevin Cooper’s Fighting Scots (8-0) will host No. 8 Massabesic of Waterboro (4-4) in one of four regional quarterfinals. Other first-round games have No. 7 Portland (5-3) at No. 2 Marshwood of Eliot (8-0), No. 6 Noble of North Berwick (5-3) at No. 3 Gorham (7-1) and No. 6 Biddeford (6-2) at No. 3 Deering of Portland (6-2). … Cape Elizabeth will visit Mountain Valley of Rumford on Friday night to determine the top seed for the four-team Western B playoffs that begin on Friday, Nov. 3. Both teams have dominated their opposition in compiling identical 8-0 records, with Mountain Valley outscoring its opposition 330-14 while Cape has a 246-45 scoring advantage over its opponents. Three teams are battling for the final two playoff berths. At 6-2, York is in strong position to earn the third seed, while Greely of Cumberland Center (5-3) and Wells (5-3) also remain alive. Greely defeated Wells 19-0 on Monday, and if the Rangers defeat 3-5 Falmouth on Friday, Wells then would have to upset York and win a subsequent coin toss to edge out Greely for the final playoff spot.