Nick Janes remembers how it used to feel to be a Marshwood football player, and he remembers when that changed.
At one time, the Hawks had one of the best football programs in the state. But Marshwood hadn’t been to a state title game since 1989, and finished 2-6 and out of the playoffs in 2011.
“You felt secluded,” said Janes, a senior running back and defensive back on this year’s Marshwood team. “Like, everybody knew you were, but no one really cared.”
Marshwood hired coach Alex Rotsko before this season. In addition to coaching at American International College and Ithaca, Rotsko had won 11 Super Bowls in 19 years as coach of Longmeadow High School in Massachusetts.
“The first practice, you looked at him, he just looked confident,” Janes said. “You didn’t want to lose for him.”
For Janes, the moment he realized things were different came in a preseason scrimmage against Portsmouth (N.H.) High. Marshwood struggled to move the ball, and Rotsko told his players what was wrong and how to fix it.
“The next play, we ran for like a 20-yard gain,” Janes said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Marshwood eventually made it to the Class B state championship game, losing 44-42 to Mt. Blue. It was clear Marshwood is back.
“You could feel the whole community coming around you,” Janes said.
Rotsko, who was also athletic director at Longmeadow, was friends with former Marshwood coach John Caverly, so he was aware when the Marshwood job became open.
“My wife and I own a home at York Beach, and we were coming up here anyway after I retired,” Rotsko said.
As usual, Rotsko installed the Wing-T offense, a run-based system built of multiple weapons.
“We ran it at Longmeadow,” he said. “The 19 years that I was there, we ran it 18 years and had 18 winning seasons. You can guess what happened that one year.”
“We used to run the spread offense,” said Dan Lizotte, a senior fullback/linebacker. “I thought we had the size to run a tighter offense. We just powered it up the middle. I liked it.”
With his favorite offense in place, Rotsko said there were two clear differences for him between Maine and Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, you have to play three games in 12 days at playoff time, including the annual Thanksgiving rivalry, while Maine simply has a game each week. The other notable difference is the size of the rosters.
“The school that I came from was not a real big school,” Rotsko said. “We probably had 500 boys, and 100 played football. I was used to dealing with 105, 110 kids. I came here, we had about 60 kids at the first practice. Out of those 60, 40 or so were freshmen and sophomores.”
Marshwood’s first two games in the regular season were against York and Mountain Valley. York was returning 18 starters from a playoff team, and Mountain Valley is a perennial powerhouse. Rotsko said he was told those were the two teams that Marshwood had no chance to beat, but the Hawks won both games, defeating York 28-12 and Mountain Valley, 19-12.
“It was unbelievable,” Janes said. “Everybody was really excited. It felt surreal.”
Less than a month after its second win, Marshwood lost a former teammate. Troy Pappas, the quarterback in 2011 and a freshman at Bates College, died Oct. 5, six days after falling down a stairwell.
“I’ve thought of him every day,” Janes said. “It’s tough to go through something like that, so he’s always on my mind. Playing with him for three years, you get used to him being there.”
The Hawks took the field just a couple hours after Pappas’ death, and defeated Cape Elizabeth, 20-0, to run their record to 5-1. They did not lose again in the regular season, and after beating Cape Elizabeth again in the quarterfinals, knocked off Wells, 15-13, and York, 21-20 to win the Western B title.
“I feel like Troy was there watching over us, making sure we won by the skin of our teeth,” Lizotte said. “Everyone felt that was it.”
A lot of key players are back for Marshwood next season, like quarterback Cameron Roll, running back Brett Gerry, and linemen Tyler Gagnon and Beau Blanchette.
“I thought it was a great season,” Rotsko said. “It couldn’t have gone any better. I think everybody’s already excited for next year.”
MAINE TAKES NEXT STEP TOWARD FOUR FOOTBALL CLASSES
On Wednesday, the Maine Principals' Association football committee finalized a proposal to create a fourth class in Maine high school football. The proposal will be presented to the classification committee and then the MPA's general membership.
There are 76 high school football teams in Maine, and the state has had three classes since 1987. Under the new proposal, Classes A through C will each have 18 teams, and Class D will have 22 teams. Each class will be broken into two divisions.
Some teams, such as Cheverus and Biddeford, have made it clear they will "play up" in Class A. Several other schools will "play down" but will not be eligible for the playoffs.
Here is the proposed format, with schools listed in order from largest enrollment to smallest. The committee considers total student body, not just male students.
Class A (850 students or more)
Lewiston, Bangor, Windham, Oxford Hills, Edward Little, Deering, Portland, Brunswick, Cheverus
Thornton, Bonny Eagle, Sanford, Scarborough, Massabesic, Noble, South Portland, Gorham, Biddeford
Class B (600-849)
Messalonskee, Skowhegan, Cony, Hampden, Mt. Blue, Lawrence, Brewer, Oceanside, Gardiner
Mt. Ararat, Falmouth, Marshwood, Kennebunk, Greely, Westbrook, Fryeburg, Morse, York
Class C (460-599)
Nokomis, Camden Hills, Belfast, Waterville, Madison/Carrabec, Hermon, Mt. Desert Island, Old Town, Winslow
Leavitt, Lake Region, Cape Elizabeth, Gray-New Gloucester, Spruce Mountain, Freeport, Poland, Wells, Mountain Valley
Class D (459 or less)
Ellsworth/Sumner, Foxcroft Academy, Mt. View, John Bapst, Maine Central Institute, Washington Academy, Bucksport, Orono, Mattanawcook, Dexter, Stearns
Yarmouth, Oak Hill, Lisbon, Maranacook, Sacopee Valley, Dirigo, Traip, Old Orchard Beach, Telstar, Winthrop, Boothbay
SEMIFINALISTS ANNOUNCED FOR FITZPATRICK TROPHY
The Fitzpatrick Trophy is given annually to the top senior football player in the state. The award’s committee releases 12 names as semifinalists and then, after voting by Maine coaches and media, names three finalists at a later date, before announcing the winner at its annual banquet Jan. 20.
The 12 semifinalists are Leavitt’s Brian Bedard, Thornton’s Bobby Begin, Westbrook’s Cale Bollig, Lawrence’s Spencer Carey, Portland’s Tate Gale, Cheverus’ Don Goodrich, Biddeford’s Nick Leblond, Orono’s Jack Lucy, Scarborough’s Dillon Russo, Sanford’s Alex Shain, Cony’s Chandler Shostak, and Deering’s Kenny Sweet.
This list usually creates some debate, and this year was no different. Conspiculously absent from the list were Brunswick running back and defensive back Jared Jensen and Mt. Blue quarterback Jordan Whitney.
Jensen led Brunswick to a 7-3 season, rushing for over 2,000 yards and making several key interceptions on defense.
Whitney threw 29 touchdown passes this season, with only five interceptions. In the state final against Marshwood, he rushed for 117 yards on 13 attempts.
Kalle Oakes, a sports reporter for the Lewiston Sun-Journal, wrote a column published the day after the state final saying Whitney is the best player in the state and it would be a “travesty” if he was not one of the three finalists. After the list of semifinalists was released, Oakes said via Twitter that he would abstain from voting for the award this year.
STATE CHAMPIONSHIP FOOTBALL RECAP
Class A: Thornton defeated Lawrence, 37-23. Lawrence lost to Cheverus, 49-7, in the 2011 Class A final, but got off to a much better start this time as Jake Doolan returned the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown. Lawrence led 17-16 at halftime after a 36-yard field goal by Chad Martin, but turnovers doomed the Bulldogs in the second half.
Thornton took the lead for good on a 30-yard touchdown run by quarterback Eric Christensen, then Andrew Libby returned a punt 48 yards for a score. Libby ended up with 109 yards rushing on 28 carries.
Class B: In one of the wildest games in Maine state championship history, Mt. Blue defeated Marshwood, 44-42. Mt. Blue's Chad Luker rushed for five touchdowns, none longer than four yards. Marshwood had its only lead at 8-6, and that was immediately followed by an 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Mt. Blue's Calan Lucas.
There were two key plays in the final minutes. With Mt. Blue leading 38-35 and facing fourth-and four at the Marshwood 20, the Cougars faked a run and Whitney lobbed a touchdown pass to an uncovered Zak Kendall with 6:18 left. After Marshwood got within 44-42 and then forced the first punt of the game, the Hawks lost a fumble at their own 10 with 1:46 to play.
Class C: The key play in Foxcroft's 22-20 victory over Winslow came with less than 30 seconds to play in the first half. The Black Raiders were trying to take a knee and run out the clock, but fumbled the exchange from center and Foxcroft recovered. Donnie Boyer scored for the Ponies and Foxcroft led 15-7 at the half instead being locked in a 7-7 tie.
Foxcroft pushed its lead to 22-7 before Winslow scored on an eight-yard run by Zack Guptill. The Raiders planned to take one point and go for two after the next touchdown, but missed the conversion kick. Winslow didn't score again until there was only 2:39 left in the fourth quarter, and Foxcroft recovered the onside kick and held the ball the rest of the way.
FINAL MAINE FOOTBALL TOP 10
1. Thornton (11-1) - Class A state champs upset Cheverus then downed Lawrence in state final.
2. Cheverus (10-1) - Set state Class A record with 34 straight wins before losing to Thornton in West A final.
3. Lawrence (11-1) - Clearly best team in Eastern A, allowed 8.6 ppg before loss in state final.
4. Mt. Blue (12-0) - Won Class B title and might have given Lawrence a run in East A.
5. Marshwood (10-2) - Hawks were 2-6 last season, went to Class B final this year.
6. Cony (8-3) - Rams were only team besides Thornton to throw a scare into Lawrence.
7. Scarborough (7-3) - Two of Red Storm's three losses were to Thornton.
8. Brunswick (7-3) - Dragons had same record as last year despite graduating 18 seniors.
9. Leavitt (7-2) - shocking final-play loss in quarterfinals to Belfast.
10. York (8-3) - Wildcats didn't overpower opponents, but two of three losses were to Marshwood.
FORMER MESSALONSKEE COACH NOT CHARGED WITH ASSAULT
Former Messalonskee football coach Wes Littlefield resigned Sept. 20, less than 24 hours after an incident in practice involving one of his players. He was summoned by local police five days later, but recently, acting District Attorney Alan Kelley announced he would not file a criminal assault charge against Littlefield.
In a press release, Kelley said that while the office didn’t condone the alleged conduct, “criminal assault charges are not supported by the evidence under current Maine law.”
Littlefield had a 43-40 record over nine and half seasons at Messalonskee. The Eagles were 3-0 when he resigned, and finished at 6-4 after losing in the Eastern A semifinals to eventual regional champion Lawrence. Messalonskee is part of Regional School Unit 18, and Littlefield said that while the football coach position is open, he is no longer interested.
“I am completely done with RSU 18,” Littlefield told the Morning Sentinel. “I’m hoping to move my career on to another high school, either locally or elsewhere in the state.”
Walter McKee, the attorney for the player involved in the incident, told the Sentinel that Littlefield should not be allowed to coach high school sports again.