The 2023 high school football season is barely over, but don’t think for a second that the next opportunity to compete in 2024 isn’t on the minds of everyone in the game.
In a season that saw a healthy amount of young talent across central Maine, it’s never too early to think about what could transpire on the gridiron next fall. Of course, much can change in an offseason given the structure of high school football in Maine, but there’s no dearth of local teams with plenty of promise.
No central Maine team might have more of that promise than Cony, which is fresh off a 7-4 season and runner-up finish in Class B North. Cony did so with six sophomore starters, including one of the state’s top quarterbacks in Parker Morin, on offense as well as four on defense.
Morin will have good receiving options in Ethan Demmons and Lance Theriault, while Conner Heidle (missed most of season with injury) and Anderson St. Onge return at running back. St. Onge (defensive back) will also aid the Rams on defense, as will Waleed Jamo on the defensive line.
“We had a small senior class, and we lost two really important ones early in the season, so some young guys stepped in and got playing time for us,” said Cony head coach B.L. Lippert. “Hopefully, that’s able to translate into a good offseason and an opportunity to get back to (a regional final) and change the result next year.”
Lawrence, which beat Cony 27-7 to win the Class B North championship, must retool on the offensive line with Davin Bolduc and Connor Mayo the only returning starters. Yet the Bulldogs always seem to contend, and they should again with an elite running back in Colton Carter and returning quarterback Michael Hamlin.
Messalonskee took a massive step forward in 2023, going 7-2 after winning a combined five games over its previous four seasons. The Eagles, like Lawrence, lose plenty of experience, but quarterback Tatum Doucette, defensive back Drake Brunelle and defensive end Denny Martin give them a solid backbone for 2024.
“There’s a lot of great players coming back,” said first-year Messalonskee head coach Blair Doucette, who was named B North Co-Coach of the Year along with Lawrence’s John Hersom. “I’d like to have the type of program where we’re reloading, not rebuilding, and I think we have some of those bullets in the chamber for next season.”
Nokomis loses a few players along the line but could be a candidate to take a big step forward in Class C North after a 4-6 season. The Warriors hope to stack up to the trio of Oceanside, Medomak Valley and Hermon, though there are some questions as to what exactly that region might look like in 2024.
“I see it changing a lot with some of the rumors I’m hearing of teams dropping down to eight-man,” said Nokomis head coach Jake Rogers. “I’m at my wits’ end with it; there’s no stability right now, so you never know what it’s going to look like. They’re adamant not to go to three (11-man) classes, so we might be stuck in a league again that’s only six teams.
Should four classes remain, D South will feature two strong teams locally next year in Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale and Oak Hill. The Ramblers and Raiders finished a respective 7-4 and 5-4 this year, navigating young rosters and tough starts to the season to earn regional championship game and semifinal appearances.
Returning at running back for the Ramblers are Cody Cobb and Carter Rivers, who combined for nearly 2,000 yards on the ground. The team also brings back its starting quarterback in Braden Branagan, its No. 1 receiver and No. 2 tackler in Ben Porter and an elite defensive lineman in Hunter Reynolds (seven sacks).
“We have a lot of the young talent from this year coming back for us, so we definitely do have an advantage there,” said Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale head coach Dave St. Hilaire. “You also have to take into consideration that we’ve won, including this year, the last three middle school championships. I’d say (the future) looks really good.”
Oak Hill will be right there with Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale next year. The Raiders, who graduate just four seniors, defeated the Ramblers 20-12 in the regular season and led them most of the way in a regional semifinal rematch before the visitors used a late touchdown and last-second field goal to win 17-14.
Kai Taylor, who had a promising freshman season at quarterback, will be back under center for Oak Hill in 2024. The Raiders are also set to return Kaiden Delano at running back, Isaac Graham and P.J. Smith at wide receiver and Forrest St. Laurent, among others, along the offensive line.
In Class D North, Winslow takes a big blow with the loss of running back Matt Quirion but could still be a tough out with production elsewhere largely returning. Across the river, Waterville loses some key players but could still be in the mix in eight-man Large School North with key losses elsewhere in the class.
Maranacook has been a contender in the eight-man ranks since the format’s inception. If that changes in 2024, it likely wouldn’t be because the Black Bears aren’t good enough; it would be because Maranacook, which had a large roster this past season, is contemplating a move to 11-man football.
“We had possibly the largest roster in eight-man at 42 kids, and next year, we’re looking to have the same amount,” Maranacook head coach Skip Bessey. “I also heard that a lot of kids who didn’t play last year might come out. It just doesn’t look like we’re going to drop in numbers, so (a move to 11-man) is being kicked around a little bit.”
Bessey is confident in his team’s ability to succeed in either format, but should the Black Bears remain in eight-man, they’ll be especially dynamic with their depth. Although Maranacook loses a good chunk of skill players, it does return a decent portion of its line as well as two top linebackers in Jack Crosby and Coby Dunn.
“Yeah, we’re losing a lot of talent, but we have guys coming right in that I think will be able to step right into those roles,” Bessey. “I think it’ll be a more even playing field (in Small School South) with Old Orchard and Dirigo next year again, and I also think Sacopee Valley makes a jump.”