HEBRON — Every high school football team in the state has a player invited to play in the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl. To have two or even three players invited to play in the annual all-star game to benefit Shriner’s Hospitals says a lot about the state of a school’s football program. Usually, a handful of perennial powers have two or three players represented, while a vast majority of schools send one athlete to the game.

Luke Emery and Ian Palmer are representing Maranacook Community High School in the game. It’s another step forward for a football program that, after struggling for wins for years, enjoyed its best season since bringing its program back in the late 1990s.

“We had a great season last season, and it definitely showed. Eight and two. Undefeated at home. Nothing to be mad about,” Palmer said.

Palmer and Emery will play for the West squad in Saturday’s game. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. at Waterhouse Field in Biddeford.

Palmer will play on the offensive line for the West, while Emery is set to play defensive end. The friends grew up playing football together, and are happy to finish their high school careers together in the Lobster Bowl.

“When I found out Ian was here, I was really happy,” Emery said.

Added Palmer: “I’m glad I got to come. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I came to watch the game last year, and I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to be out there.’ It’s a huge achievement.”

When Palmer and Emery were freshmen, the Black Bears won just two games. They improved to four wins in 2009 and won four again in 2010, losing in the Campbell Conference quarterfinals each year.

“We did work harder, we had better practices and we came together and it showed,” Palmer said.

Fan support grew, particularly when the lights and bleachers were installed for the 2009 season. The lights and bleachers were the result of a wish made by Ricky Gibson. A 15-year old Maranacook sophomore in 2008, Gibson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. When granted a request by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Gibson chose lights and bleachers at his high school’s football field. Make-A-Wish donated $6,000 and helped the school raise the rest of the funds for the project.

Gibson died in April 2009, after a seven-month fight with cancer, and the Black Bears made their debut under the lights at the Ricky Gibson Field on Dreams the following fall. Helping turn Maranacook into a winning program was a way to honor Gibson’s memory, Emery and Palmer said.

“I was real good friends with him,” Emery said.

Added Palmer: “I played two sports with him, so I was always around him. He was a great kid.”

The increased fan support was also a motivation for the Black Bears.

“The biggest turning point was the lights and the bleachers, and everybody wanting to go to the games,” Emery said. “That pumped the players up. We had a big crowd every single game. It was awesome.”

The 2011 Kennebec Journal Football Player of the Year, Emery ran for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Black Bears, and had 73 tackles and 15 sacks. Palmer anchored the offensive line at center, and played linebacker for a defense that allowed just a touchdown per game. Both were Campbell Conference all-stars, and Emery won the Taglienti Award as the conference’s top player.

The friends expect Maranacook to remain competitive.

“They’ve still got athletes on the club, they just need more freshmen coming up, keeping the program going,” Palmer said.

“They started the pee wee a couple years after we did fifth and sixth (grade), so the younger guys, there’s a lot more of them and they’re pretty athletic,” Emery said. “I think in the future, Maranacook will be pretty good.”

Palmer plans on playing football at Husson University in the fall. For Emery, this is his final game. His 2-year old brother, Nickolai, was treated at Shriner’s Hospitals for burns on his hands, so Emery knows firsthand what he’s playing for.

“It’s cool for me to be here,” Emery said. “This is it for me, so I need to go all out.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

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