Playing in the Pine Tree Conference Class B is an eight-week grind. For defending Class B state champion Cony, defense of the title begins with a big game against rival Messalonskee, a team the Rams had to beat twice on the way to the Gold Ball in 2013.

Both Cony and Messalonskee went deep into the playoffs last season, and each has aspirations of playing well into November again. Neither team is without a few question marks, and tonight’s game will be a good early test for a pair of teams that expect to improve week-by-week.

Here’s a look at the Messalonskee-Cony matchup.

• Last season: Cony defeated Messalonskee twice, 48-20 in the regular season and 41-15 in the Pine Tree Conference Class B semifinals.

• Messalonskee players to watch: QB/S Jake Dexter, T/DT Jake Doyon, T/DT Brice Garten, FB/LB Josh Casey, FB/LB Jack Bernatchez, HB/LB Caleb Chevarie, TE/DE Bryce Eldridge, SE/CB Josh Boucher.

• Cony players to watch: RB/LB Reid Shostak, QB Mitchell Caron, WR/RB/LB Tayler Carrier, G Elias Younes, WR Anthony Brunelle, DT Elijah Toby, LB Joel Bennett.

• Messalonskee coach Brad Bishop on Cony: “They’ve still got (Carrier) and (Shostak) and a pretty good quarterback. They spread the field. They’ll be tough to stop. We’ll have to go down there and play well in order to beat them. They’ve still got some athletes. We’re not taking anything for granted.”

• Cony coach Robby Vachon on Messalonskee: “Jake Dexter, he’s obviously one of the better athletes in the state. We had a hard time containing him last year. He’s really skilled in the secondary, too. He’s got a nose for the football. Doyon gets off the ball really well. They have some good players. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”

• Three keys for Messalonskee

1. Spread the ball around. The Eagles lost running back Corey McKenzie and wideout Devin Warren to graduation, and that means defenses are going to key on Jake Dexter. Don’t expect the quarterback to do everything.

2. Account for Shostak. The Cony junior is one of the best linebackers in the state. If he’s unblocked, Shostak will disrupt play after play.

3. Cover the entire field. Even with the graduation of Fitzpatrick Trophy winning quarterback Ben Lucas, the Rams will spread the ball around and use every inch of the field.

• Three keys for Cony

1. Patience. New starting quarterback Mitchell Caron has shown promise in the early going, but don’t expect him to be the polished quarterback Lucas was. “There was a lot to throw at him,” Vachon said, “and he’s done a nice job.”

2. Account for Dexter. As Vachon said, Messalonskee’s quarterback is one of the top athletes in the state. He can turn what looks like a busted play into a big gain. Defensively, Dexter has the ability to close on receivers quickly. If it looks like he’s beat, chances are he’s not.

3. Win the battle on the line. While the loss of Lucas and receiver Jonathan Saban is what most will see, the Rams graduated some talented lineman, including center Isaac Gingras and tackle Nic Benner. Replacing those players is just as key as replacing the skill position guys.

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