PITTSFIELD — Josh Buker was off and running Friday night, and now so, too, are his Maine Central Institute teammates.

The senior quarterback rushed for two touchdowns and returned a punt for another score as top-seeded MCI opened the Class D North football playoffs with a 41-8 win over No. 4 Bucksport in the Little Ten Conference semifinals.

Buker produced more than 200 total yards on his own against the Golden Bucks, rushing for 128 yards and throwing for 48 more. His 57-yard punt return midway through the third quarter opened up a 35-0 lead for the Huskies.

“Over these 10 games this year, we’ve built a relationship as a team that no matter what happens we feel like we can drive the ball down the field,” Buker said. “We’re a family. We’re together.”

After coming up short in each of the last two seasons in its quest for a Class D state championship, MCI head coach Tom Bertrand was happy to have the first obstacle in this year’s playoffs cleared.

“It’s huge. You’ve got to get over that hurdle,” Bertrand said. “We have a goal of winning the Gold Ball, there’s no secret about that. But you can’t get to the Gold Ball game without winning each playoff game. As coaches, we’re always concerned about winning that first one. You can’t take anyone for granted in this league.”

It took a while for the offense for MCI (10-0) to get into a rhythm on Friday. A long game-opening drive stalled out after 13 plays with no points to show for it, and Bucksport made the Huskies nervous when it marched all the way inside the MCI 10-yard line on its first possession.

That drive, too, stalled at the MCI 7 when consecutive incompletions on third and fourth down by Golden Bucks quarterback Chase Carmichael turned the ball back over to the home team.

Four plays later, Buker faked a handoff in the backfield and raced 42-yards for the opening score.

Bucksport didn’t gain another first down in the first half, and Eric Bussell (13 yards) and Adam Bertrand (28 yards) tacked on second-quarter touchdowns for a 21-0 lead at the break.

But the game really turned up in the third quarter with Buker exhibiting why the Huskies have placed so much faith in him. On their first possession of the half, Buker ran an option play to the right from his own 31-yard line, carrying all the way to midfield before pitching to Bertrand along the sideline. Bertrand (11 carries, 84 yards) kept powering forward and ran the ball all the way to the Bucksport 17.

Four plays later, Buker’s 10-yard scamper made it a 28-0 game.

“I think he had some jitters when we got going, and I told him on the sideline to just take a breath and relax. He looked at me like, ‘Coach, I’m having fun out there. There’s no problem at all,'” Bertrand said of his quarterback. “He’s always trying to make a play. We sometimes have to take the bad with the good, but in most cases with him there isn’t any bad. He’s making really good decisions and playing football the way you should. He’s having fun and leading.”

Buker wasn’t done.

Another three-and-out forced Bucksport to punt from deep inside their own territory. Carmichael’s punt rolled across midfield where Buker opted to pick it up. He turned upfield and was barely touched as he scored on the 57-yard return — his eighth punt return for a touchdown in 10 games this season.

“I just read the field, read my blockers and I try to give a little move to give them time to get set up to block. I try to get to the sideline and get as much room as I can,” Buker said. “I think it’s a mindset. All the coaches tell me to try and make a play. When I see a little room, I’m going to try to make something out of it.”

Junior Pedro Matos scored from six yards out with a minute to play in the third quarter. Carmichael threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Matt Vincent — of a screen pass in the backfield — early in the final quarter to complete the scoring.

“It’s huge,” Buker said of the win. “We’re playing good, but there’s always room to improve. Next week will be even tougher, so we’ve got to get better.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

tbarrett@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC