PITTSFIELD — Even before the Maine Central Institute football team had finished celebrating the Class D state championship it won last November, the chatter began. By the end of January, the rumors began to take form, and by the end of spring it was official. The Huskies would defend their Class D state title by playing in Class C.

“Honestly, we weren’t really surprised. We were expecting to move up. We were already starting to become mentally prepared for it, even after the end of football season last year,” senior David Young said.

With a 4-3 record heading into the regular season finale against Winslow, MCI is long past learning how to compete at a higher level. A playoff spot is secure. Now the Huskies want to play November football in their new conference.

“Class C is pretty competitive this year. From what I hear from other coaches, most teams are up a little more than they have been, and some of the perennial powers might not be as strong but are still really competitive,” MCI head coach Tom Bertrand said. “We hope we’re in the mix for the top of the league. I think we’ve fared pretty well.”

The enrollments used by the Maine Principals’ Association to determine sports classification are always behind what current enrollment actually is. The numbers used to set this fall’s football alignment are enrollment figures from April, 2016. That year, MCI had a minor spike in boarding students, pushing enrollment to 479. That put MCI 10 students over the Class D maximum of 469. Right now, MCI’s enrollment is 435, Bertrand said, which would put the Huskies back in Class D at the next classification.

“As they moved the number around, we were bobbing around, but we had a feeling we would be bumped up into Class C,” Bertrand said.

The Huskies are the latest team to move up a class due to higher enrollment. Foxcroft Academy just finished a four-year run in Class C, before rejoiing Class D this season. Former LTC rival John Bapst of Bangor also is in Class C now, and Leavitt of Turner has yo-yoed between Class B and C a few times over the last few two-year classification cycles.

The MPA uses enrollment as the sole determining factor in deciding class placement. Schools may petition to play up a class, or down with the understanding that makes it ineligible for the playoffs. Success and strength of program have no bearing on class placement. If the ever was a team that tested out of a lower class, however, it was this vintage of MCI. In the 2014 through 2016 season, the Huskies dominated the Little Ten Conference, going undefeated in league play. Only two of those games were decided by as little as 10 points, a 25-15 win over Mattanawcook Academy in 2014 and last season’s 35-25 win over Orono. Last week’s non-conference 34-20 win over Foxcroft Academy was MCI’s 32nd straight over an LTC opponent.

That said, nobody knows more than coach Bertrand that runs of success don’t last forever. In 2012, Bertrand was head coach of a floundering MCI team that went 0-8 in the LTC. In the seasons between MCI losing the 2000 Class C state championship game until the run of conference titles began in 2014, the Huskies won one playoff game. The Huskies graduated many of the players key to last season’s state championship run, and now were basically starting over in an unfamiliar league.

“We weren’t nervous (about playing Class C). We weren’t excited. We were ready for that next challenge, but at the same time we knew we had just had a group (of players) come through we knew was going to be a key group. We knew we were going to be playing a young quarterback and we’d lost a lot. It was a Catch-22,” Bertrand said.

MCI players found out in a 38-14 loss at Oceanside in week one how different Class C football can be. Each team the Huskies play is just a little bigger, a little stronger, and a little deeper than most opponents in Class D.

“Obviously going up to C, it gets you thinking. Different competition, more competition, people you haven’t seen yet… There’s a lot more playmakers on every team. In Class D, there was three or four. Now you really have to account for everyone on the field,” senior Adam Bertrand said. “The coaches told us, and some of us believed it and some of us were like, yeah we’re going to roll with it. I think we’ve really gotten used to the pace of Class C.”

Added coach Bertrand: “In Class D you’ve got lots of good football players. But at every position, you’re not hiding a lot of kids in this league. You might get away with that in the smaller division. There’s competition right across the board… We knew that coming in. There’s just more kids who are more physical, who are bigger, faster.”

For coach Bertrand, the loss of institutional memory was a big adjustment. He and his staff had played against LTC rivals like Bucksport and Mattanawcook so many times, scouting was easy. Now, the Huskies had a schedule full of unknowns. The last time MCI played Oceanside, the school was still Rockland High. The Huskies hadn’t played Mt. Desert Island since the early 2000s. Longtime rival Foxcroft Academy was on the schedule as a crossover game, but last week’s game was the first meeting between the teams since 2012, the season before the Ponies began a four-year stretch in Class C.

Before the season, Bertrand and his coaching staff divided up MCI’s opponents, making sure each opponent was studied by somebody who could outline tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses at Sunday scouting sessions.

“As the season’s gone on, it’s been a little easier. At the beginning, we didn’t know what these teams ran because we’re just not familiar,” Bertrand said. “Most of our kids didn’t feel that Foxcroft rivalry. It was more a sense of urgency. These last couple game are important to us as far as Heal Points and playoffs.”

MCI’s inaugural Class C schedule has been a grind. Including this week’s game against Winslow, the Huskies opponents are a combined 34-22. Only defending conference champion Mt. Desert Island has played a tougher schedule (36-20).

“We were excited when we first saw our schedule. It was some of the best teams in the league, and you’re always excited to see how you’ll be,” Young said.

MCI currently sits in third place in Class C North, almost two points ahead of Nokomis. Win or lose against Winslow Friday night, the Huskies are going to the playoffs in their first season of Class C football, and could be hosting a quarterfinal playoff game next week.

“We’re feeling good, but it’s a four quarter game for us, regardless of the opponent,” coach Bertrand said. “We think we match up pretty well, week in and week out. We had our lumps at Cape Elizabeth and MDI was a real tough school. Winslow’s going to be tough. We haven’t been healthy all year. We haven’t put our 11 guys on the field yet. That’s not an excuse, but we’re just now starting to see what it looks like when we can get all our guys on the field together.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM