Winthrop/Monmouth coach Dave St. Hilaire is confident his team will be tough to beat this season, but he knows preseason prognostications that have the Ramblers and Lisbon finally unseating three-time Campbell Conference and Class D state champion Oak Hill ultimately mean nothing.

“Oak Hill is still the three-time champs,” St. Hilaire said. “Everybody was saying us and Lisbon (would dethrone the Raiders) last year and then they go out and win another state title.”

Oak Hill coach Stacen Doucette is among those touting Winthrop/Monmouth and Lisbon as co-favorites. But he admits attrition will once again decide the conference.

“In Class D football, eligibility and injuries are a big part of the game,” he said. “And that could really be true this year because a lot of numbers are down with a lot of teams this year.”

The Raiders return six offensive and five defensive starters to make a run at a fourth consecutive Gold Ball. The returners include key position players Darryn Bailey, Steven Gilbert and Cruz Poirier. Senior Matthew Strout takes over for 2015 Kennebec Journal Player of the Year Dalton Therrien at quarterback.

“I’m expecting him to produce,” Doucette said of Strout, who was an outstanding defensive lineman last year. “I’m expecting him to be his own player. He has a very different skill set from Dalton.”

While Therrien beat teams with his speed and quickness, as well as his arm, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Strout is a bigger, more physical player who played tight end the last two years. Strout may have to set the physical tone for the Raiders while an offensive line featuring just two returning starters — seniors Adam Mooney and Gavin Chasse — meshes.

Senior linebacker Brian Thorpe and Bailey are the top holdovers from a defense that allowed just 13 points per game last season.

Winthrop/Monmouth showed its willingness to stand toe-to-toe with Oak Hill in last year’s conference semifinal, a 13-10 nail-biter. In preseason, the Ramblers were ready to pick up where they left off.

“We’re way ahead of where we were last year,” St. Hilaire said. “It’s like we never stopped practicing.”

The Ramblers have eight returning starters on each side of the ball and the balance to go with that experience. Senior quarterback Matt Ingram enters his third year with his top weapons and most of his offensive line intact. Seniors Alec Brown and Nate Scott are one of the top running tandems in the conference, while speedy senior Bennett Brooks gives Ingram a big-play target.

The defense, a constant last season for the Ramblers, will still be tough, with Brown, Scott, Jack Vickerson and Zac Wallace back to wreak havoc.

Maranacook’s transition to new head coach Bill Getty has been a smooth one so far, thanks in part to Getty’s two years as the Black Bears’ defensive coordinator. But low numbers and inexperience present some challenges.

Freshman Skyler Boucher is the new quarterback. Getty has high expectations for him but knows he will take time to develop. He hopes the double-wing ground attack, led by senior Drew Davis and three-year starting guard Logan Stanley, can keep some of the pressure off while Boucher learns on the job.

Getty will be counting on a young secondary to help his 5-3 defensive front become the swarming unit he ultimately hopes to field.

“The key will be staying healthy and improving our tackling, which has been a major focus in preseason,” Getty said.

In the Little Ten Conference, two-time defending champion Maine Central Institute hasn’t lost a league game since falling to Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln in the 2013 conference semifinals. The Huskies graduated a number of key players from last season’s Class D state runner-up, but head coach Tom Bertrand said the team experienced similar graduation atrophy after 2014, too.

“We know we graduated another strong class, and we’d like to think we’ll continue graduating strong classes,” Bertrand, now in his 15th season at the Pittsfield school, said. “We got the same questions last year. Guys continue to step up. A lot of these guys have played a lot of football.”

MCI returns most of its experience in the backfield, where running backs Willie Moss and Adam Bertrand return. Moss is the team’s leading returning rusher, while Bertrand is back after missing the second half of last season to an ankle injury.

Replacing four-year starter Greg Vigue at quarterback will be either Josh Buker or Eli Bussell. No matter who is under center of the Huskies up-tempo offense, the other will see time at receiver, along with senior Clark Morrison.

A question mark is the offensive line, where MCI graduated the entire unit.

“We’ve got a lot of guys stepping in there. Some guys are playing different positions than what they’re used to,” Coach Bertrand said.

Defensively, MCI is led by Bertrand and Bussell at linebacker, and Aaron Noonan at defensive end.

Mount View is coming off its finest football season to date. The Mustangs won seven games and reached the conference semifinals last season. Now, making playoff runs the rule rather than the exception at Mount View is the goal.

“We set our goals high. We want to be the first Mount View football team to make the playoffs back-to-back years,” head coach Haggie Pratt said.

The Mustangs graduated some talent, but return some skill position players who could be dynamic. Devan Davis and Colby Furrow can play a few positions, Pratt said, and Darrin Cook returns at fullback. Junior Rayno Boivin takes over at quarterback for Mount View.

Owen Cunningham, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound lineman, moves from tackle to guard to better block and pull in the Mustangs’ run-heavy option offense. An all-LTC defensive tackle last season, Cunningham returns to anchor the Mustangs defensive line.

Cook and Davis are also returning all-conference players for Mount View.

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