Maine Central Institute struggled early last season as it adjusted to life in Class C a season removed from winning the Class D state championship. By the end of the season, the Huskies were rolling, winning three straight regional playoff games on the road before winning another Gold Ball.

This season, MCI knows it will not sneak up on anybody. The Huskies entered last season as an unknown new kid on the block. Now, they’re a two-time state champion with a target on its back.

“We just want these guys to remember what got us there. That bar’s been set, and we want to raise that bar,” MCI coach Tom Bertrand said.

While the Huskies lost a few players to graduation, notably Adam Bertrand, David Young and Pedro Matos, the team returns a strong group. Senior nose guard Seth Bussell established himself as one of the better defensive players in the conference last season. Offensively, Bussell can line up at fullback or guard. His brother, Isaac Bussell, returns at linebacker.

Ryan Friend enjoyed a strong season as a freshman at quarterback, and will look to build on that initial success. His top target could be tight end TJ Kuespert. Andrew Whitaker returns to the backfield.

MCI will be tested immediately, opening the season with a crossover game at Leavitt, one of the top contenders in Class C South.

With just four seniors on the roster, Winslow is young and will rely heavily on underclassmen. The four seniors — offensive linemen Cam Winslow and Jacob Bisson, halfback Ben Dorval, and defensive back Dacota Waldie — will all contribute. A three-year starter, Winslow has the potential to be a force at tackle for the Black Raiders.

Dorval, Isaiah Goldsmith and Alex Demers will be in the backfield for Winslow. Colby Pomeroy saw most of his offensive playing time at receiver last season, but makes the switch to quarterback. Dorval and Demers will anchor the Black Raider defense from their inside linebacker positions.

Winslow coach Mike Siviski expects the season opener at Nokomis to be a challenge for his team.

“We think Nokomis is outstanding,” Siviski said. “It will be a good test for both teams.”

Nokomis won six games, last season and reached the playoffs for the first time. Now the Warriors want to turn last season — the best in program history — into a springboard to more. It starts with a strong senior class, led by quarterback Andrew Haining, who is entering his fourth year as the starter.

“His confidence is a lot better. He believes in what we’re doing,” coach Jake Rogers said of Haining. “He wants to be coached.”

Receivers Brock and Chance Graves are veteran playmakers, as is running back Alex Costedio. James Boyd, Phenyx Hatch and John Tucker are seniors returning to the offensive line.

The Warriors allowed an average of just under 17 points per game last season. Against a tough schedule, that defensive effort will need to continue. Linebackers Costedio and Quinton Richards lead the defense, along with Boyd at defensive tackle and Brock and Chance Graves in the secondary.

Another team looking to build on last season’s improvement is Waterville. After a winless 2016, the Purple Panthers won three games and reached the playoffs last season. With a number of players back on both sides of the ball, Waterville hopes to take another step forward.

“Depth is our issue, but as long as we can keep starters healthy, we have a lot of starts under our belt,” coach Matt Gilley said.

Jack Thompson is back at quarterback for Waterville, with Trafton Gilbert and Nick Wildhaber returning to the backfield. The offensive line should get a boost from a veteran playing a new position. Cooper Hart, formerly a tight end, moves inside to tackle. Guard John Evans is another returning starter on the offensive line.

On defense, the Panthers will go back to a 5-2 base formation, with Evans and Hart at linebacker. The idea is to keep things basic and cover all gap responsibilities, Gilley said.

One of the class’s surprises last year was Gardiner, which overcame a string of losing seasons in Class B to reach the C South final last season.

“We were very fortunate to have some kids back that were part of that run, on both sides of the ball,” coach Joe White said. “They’re a talented group, they work really hard and they take this very seriously. … The motto around here is ‘Refuse to lose.’ They don’t like it. It leaves a bitter taste.”

The Tigers’ fierce defense kept some of its biggest names, including hard-hitting safety Garrett Maheux and linebackers Cam Michaud and Nate Malinowski, but a defensive line led by A.J. Chadwick, Dylan Spencer, Brad Sandelin and Roy Appleby should be the biggest asset.

“Right now, I’m looking at defensive linemen that are three, four deep in each spot, and the third-string guys could play on Friday night,” White said. “It looks really good on the defensive line. We’ve got a lot of guys that like to bang down low.”

There’s a new quarterback in Sean Michaud, but a balanced backfield of Malinowski, Cam Michaud and Maheux and a big-play target in Matt Boynton should help the transition.

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