PORTLAND — Maine Central Institute’s stars started leaving Fitzpatrick Stadium’s ragged turf at an alarming rate midway through the first half of Saturday’s Class D state championship.

First, dynamic tailback Jonathan Santiago hobbled to the sidelines. Before he’d even settled on the cold aluminum bench, two-way stars Eric Hathaway and Alex Bertrand were limping as well.

On the opposite side of the field, the defending champions just went about their business. If MCI’s walking wounded was registering with Oak Hill, the Raiders weren’t about to take a pause to contemplate the impact on the game.

“We don’t even talk about that,” Oak Hill coach Stacen Doucette said. “With (MCI going) no huddle, we don’t even have time to look at that.”

MCI’s no huddle offense was the focus of Oak Hill’s defense all week, and nothing was going to take it out of focus, not even the absence of three of its most critical pieces.

The Raiders were more concerned with how the Huskies were lining up in front of them and not who. Particularly concerned was senior captain and linebacker Samson Lacroix, whom Oak Hill’s coaches gave the hefty responsibility of calling defensive signals on the fly, rather than getting his signals from the sidelines as he would against a more deliberate huddling offense.

“We practiced all week (and coaches told him), ‘If they’re in this formation, you can do this or that. It’s up to you,” Lacroix said. “They really gave me the reins. It was a dream come true.”

Lacroix and the Raiders were wise to maintain their tunnel vision, given that the Huskies had already shown a knack for overcoming injuries this year.

Santiago was the LTC’s rushing champion last year and was well on his way to repeating that performance before a knee injury forced him to miss a month. Hathaway also missed time with a knee injury. Bertrand, a fullback, helped fill the void in the running game while they were out, as did sophomores Willie Moss and Eli Bussell. The Huskies never missed a beat, rolling through the LTC undefeated.

Moss and Bussell were game in an attempt to fill in again, but the Raiders had more than enough talent and preparation to counter.

“We were able to shut down the run really well by calling ‘TNT purple,’ which is pinching (the middle). My tackles go in and I shoot (the gap),” Lacroix said.

“Once we lost some of those guys and had other guys stepping in, certainly in a game like this, it takes its toll,” MCI coach Tom Bertrand. “To take nothing away from Eli or Willie or anybody else that stepped in to do the job, but certainly when you lose three guys like that that are keys, it hurts.”

Santiago returned briefly early in the second half but couldn’t continue. Bertrand tried to continue on offense, but was limited to just playing linebacker in the second half, as was Hathaway, a fullback/nose guard. Both were clearly in pain. They may have had two good legs between them.

Last year’s Oak Hill team, led by bulldozing blockers and tacklers like Luke Washburn and Bayley Beaulieu, may have exploited such injuries by running over the Huskies. This year’s team, led by running backs Alex Mace (342 all-purpose yards) and Kyle Flaherty and QB Dalton Therrien (166 yards, 2 TDs passing), did it by running around and past them.

“It was a little different (this year) because we had to be a little creative at times,” Doucette said. “We weren’t as physical as in the past. But this team’s a good team. They’re very athletic.”

Not that winning championships with contrasting styles makes any difference to veteran contributors like Therrien.

“You can look at differences, but when you look at an Oak Hill football team, it’s always one group,” he said. “That’s all we are.”

One very focused group, for sure.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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