Everything you need to know about Josh Buker’s football season can be found in Maine Central Institute’s final two drives of the season, in the Huskies’ 20-14 win over Lisbon in the Class D state championship game. On those two drives, covering 175 yards in 18 plays, Buker led the Huskies first to the game-tying touchdown, then the game-winning score on the game’s improbable final play.

“He took it upon himself to make big plays, and he trusted his teammates to make big plays,” MCI coach Tom Bertrand said.

Throughout the season, Maine Central Institute quarterback Josh Buker dominated the Little Ten Conference. It culminated with that fourth quarter effort against Lisbon on Nov. 19, in which he led the Huskies to a come from behind win over the Greyhounds to give MCI its first football state title since 1974.

For all that, Josh Buker is the Morning Sentinel Football Player of the Year. Also considered were Garrett McSweeney of Skowhegan and Austin Pelletier of Messalonskee.

Buker’s football career came from personal tragedy, before ending in ultimate joy.

Buker played football in junior high, and joined the high school team as a freshman. When he was a sophomore, Buker decided not to go out for the football team, focusing on basketball instead. In March of that year, Buker had a conversation with his father, Steven Buker II, who urged his son to give football another try.

“If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have played last year or this year. He got me into it. He was a basketball player, but the last phone call I had with him was, he’s like, ‘I think you might be more of a football player than a basketbball player.’ I said ‘What are you talking about?’ He was like, ‘Trust me. You’re speedy. You can play wide receiver. You can play running back. You can play whatever position you want.’ I said I’d try it out,” Buker said. “He passed away a couple of weeks later.”

Steven Buker II died in his sleep on March 20, 2015. That spring, Buker went to coach Bertrand and said he’d like to play again.

“I went up to Coach. I’d like to play football again for my dad, for me, I’d like to get back with the team. He was more than happy to have me,” Buker said.

“His dad was one of his biggest supporters,” Bertrand said of Buker.

As a junior, Buker played wide receiver and defensive back for the Huskies, as they won their second straight Little Ten Conference title, but lost the state championship game to Oak Hill for the second year in a row. This season, with the graduation of four-year starter Greg Vigue, Buker moved to quarterback. Buker became an all-purpose threat for the Huskies, running for 933 yards and nine touchdowns while throwing for 922 yards and 17 touchdowns, completing 60 percent (61 of 101) of his passes. Buker also was a scoring threat on special teams, returning eight punts for touchdowns, including three in a win over Houlton. In the state game, Lisbon punted five times, each one as far from Buker as possible.

Which leads us here, to MCI’s two-yard line, with 7:57 left in the state championship game.

• • •

MCI trailed 14-0 at the half, and Buker connected with Adam Bertrand on a 58-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter to pull the Huskies within a touchdown, 14-7. A three and out by the Greyhounds and a great punt by Tyler Halls backed the Huskies up with almost the entire field to go for the game-tying score.

“We knew we had to get it down (the field). We knew we had to score, or we were going to be in big trouble,” Buker said. “We all came together and said, we’re putting this in the end zone. Running, passing, whatever. We’ve got four downs to get 10 yards, and we’ll keep going the rest of the drive… It was a little bit of pass, a little bit of scramble, just keep the ball moving down the field.”

After back-to-back runs by Adam Bertrand gained 14 yards, Buker connected with David Young for an 11-yard pass on second and six at the 16. Buker was 15 for 25 in the game, for 193 yards. It was the most MCI threw all season.

“Going into it, we knew we were going to have to (throw). Their defensive line was huge. Our offensive line didn’t have the size to match up with them, so it was going to be a struggle to keep them on blocks. We knew they played mostly man coverage, so we had to take advantage of our receivers in the open,” Buker said. “I think we threw a limited amount during the year, just because we didn’t have to. We had the ability to run on teams. In this one, if you had to pass, you had to pass.”

On first and 10 at the 27, Buker was sacked for a three yard loss. That play set up the next three, all Buker runs, and not all by design. On second and 13, Buker dropped back, then took off, scrambling for 13 yards to set up third down and inches. That was the only third down of the drive for the Huskies, who picked up a first down when Buker plunged forward for a yard.

“Our offense is designed this year for him to be able to do that,” coach Bertrand said.

A 13 yard pass to Young gave the Huskies a first down at the Lisbon 47. Two plays later, a Lisbon personal foul moved MCI to the Greyhound 31. Buker ran for 10 yards, giving MCI second down and inches at the 21. In the first half, MCI noticed how hard Lisbon’s defensive ends came on the rush, and thought an option play could pick up needed yards in the right situation. This was that situation. Buker took off around the right side, with running back Eli Bussell close behind. Inside the five yard line, with Lisbon defenders converging on Buker for the tackle, he pitched the ball to Bussell, who went the final two yards for the game-tying touchdown.

“I faked a pitch to (Bussell), and I went inside. Then I saw a linebacker, so I went back outside. I don’t know who it was out there, but they were stalk-blocking, and he got off it a little bit,” Buker said. “I kind of held like I was going to pitch, and I was waiting to see what they were going to do. They started coming at me, so I just looked out of the corner of my eye and saw Eli. I just threw it back to him. I was like, ‘Go in.'”

It wasn’t a play the Huskies spent much practice time perfecting.

“We’ve always had options as part of our package. When you have a quarterback like that, you don’t have to rep it. He knows enough to get that pitch read,” coach Bertrand said.

With the score tied, MCI forced the Greyhounds to punt from their own 33. With 40.1 seconds left in the game, the Huskies took over on their own 23. Not much was said, coach Bertrand recalled.

“We’d already had that conversation at halftime. Trust in the process, trust in each other,” Bertrand said.

The first play was a scramble by Buker for 17 yards. Again, the quarterback made a play.

“We ran a deep pass, I think. I went back and I was looking. To the left side, there was nobody there,” Buker said. “I don’t know where the defensive end went, but there’s nobody there. I’ll get more yards running this before anybody realizes I took off, so I just ran with it.”

A pair of incompletions set MCI up third down and 10 at its own 40. Again, the Huskies called for deep pass patterns, knowing Buker could scramble if the throw wasn’t there. This time, Buker took off to the left, gaining 21 yards to the Lisbon 39.

“We were running deep passes downfield. The defensive backs have to run with our receivers. They were making (defenders) pay the whole game. When they ran off with them, when their back was turned, I saw enough field and ran with it,” Buker said. “I think we took advantage of them. When they saw we were passing a lot, they dropped a few more back in pass coverage, and that just allowed me to scramble for those extra yards. I just took what I could get.”

With 12.9 seconds left and second down and 10, Buker rolled to his right, finding Adam Bertrand for a 19 yard gain.

“Josh was scrambling, he got flushed. The defensive end beat two of our guys. Josh said he looked for Adam’s gloves,” coach Bertrand said. “Adam said we need to play backyard football to have a chance, and that was kind of one of those backyard plays.”

Kicker Devon Varney came on to attempt the game-winning 37-yard field goal with 3.1 seconds left. The kick was never made. Bussell, the holder, dropped the snap, picked up the ball and ran, scoring the game-winning touchdown with no time left. After orchestrating the drive, Buker watched the final play unfold from the sideline.

“We knew we had to get into decent range because Devon, our kicker, he’s probably one of the best kickers in our league, in any league. He has the leg to kick it whatever distance. We were just trying to get in some kind of range so he could kick it if we couldn’t score,” Buker said. “I’m standing on the sideline watching it, just praying hopefully he makes it. I see Eli take off around the corner…”

Buker smiled. He sat in the lobby of MCI’s Wright Gymnasium, in front of the trophy case. He glanced at the emppty space in the case, reserved for the new Gold Ball, and smiled again.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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