WATERVILLE — The four-year varsity starter in high school football is a rare species. When you have one, you cherish it. When you have two, like Waterville Senior High School, you begin each day with a thank you to the football gods.

Waterville seniors John Evans and Cooper Hart line up next to each on the offensive line, and as linebackers on the Purple Panthers defense. Over the years, their positions have changed, but their presence on the field has been a constant for Waterville since each was thrown into the starting lineup as freshmen in the 2015 season.

“My (freshman) season was run on adrenaline. Just being able to play with the guys I had looked up to previous years,” said Evans, who started at center that season before moving to guard, his current position. “I remember being the short guy on a big line.”

Added Hart: “Being able to play with those guys, you want to try to play as well as they did, play up to their level as a freshman.”

Evans and Hart were keys on both sides of the ball in Waterville’s season-opening 45-12 win at Belfast last Friday. With Hart at left tackle and Evans at left guard, the duo helped a Purple Panthers team that ran for six touchdowns. Defensively, the pair play side-by-side at linebacker in Waterville’s 52 front, with runners funneled to them to make tackles.

“That’s what the 52 is. People don’t run the 52 unless you have two studs that can make all those plays. Those guys, with all that experience, it’s paying off. I think it’s been successful so far,” Waterville coach Matt Gilley said.

Evans was a two-way starter as a freshman, and a key on special teams. Hart started on defense and saw time at tight end and wide receiver on offense. In Waterville’s homecoming game that season, under portable lights at Drummond Field against Oceanside, both showed they belonged on the field. Evans blocked a pair of extra points and a punt, and Hart made his first varsity touchdown catch. While Waterville lost a close game, 33-28, the play of the two freshmen gave the Panthers hope for the future.

“Physically, they looked like freshmen. When you’re in that situation, you’ve got to look past that and look at some of the football IQ stuff. That’s the first order of business,” Gilley said.

Waterville’s John Evans hits a pad during practice Wednesday in Waterville. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

That promise began to reveal itself last season, as Waterville rebounded from an 0-8 2016 to win three games and make the playoffs for the first time since 2014. This season, Evans and Hart look to lead further improvement.

“I tell people this all the time. We don’t have more guys on the team this year, but we have more committed guys this year than we ever have,” Evans said. “We’ve got a really big group of seniors and even juniors who have stuck with this program through the worst times.”

Now 5-foot-9 and 200-pounds, Evans was an undersized scrappy lineman when he started at center as a freshman.

“John is a passionate football player. He was just as passionate then as he is now. He played with the same fire back then that he does now. He has a little higher football IQ now,” Gilley said.

Part of that football IQ comes from his grandfather, Jake Crouthamel, a former standout player at Dartmouth College who was athletic director at Syracuse University for 27 years.

“Every time I see him, he thinks I should be fullback-linebacker. So he’s pretty happy I’m playing linebacker now,” Evans said.

Hart joined the Purple Panthers with his own deep family ties to the program. His older brothers Josh and Nate were strong players for Waterville, as were many of his cousins. Hart grew up with pictures of his family in action for the Panthers all over his basement. Evans said he’d study the photos when he was at Hart’s house.

Waterville seniors Cooper Hart and John Evans have started all four years for the Purple Panthers. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“He’d be playing video games and I’d be looking at the wall,” Evans said.

“Looking at my brothers and what they did, I just want to follow in their footsteps and play as good as they did. And my cousins. It goes back pretty deep,” Hart said.

Gilley and assistant coach Cam Bishop discussed moving the 6-1, 220-pound Hart from tight end to tackle for a while.

“That was discussion all summer long because he’s still one of our better pass catchers. Truth be told. We needed to pull some athletes on to the offensive line. He’s been playing tight end. It was a natural progression,” Gilley said.

Hart embraced the move.

“I just want to play football, really. When it came down to (the) coaches moving me, I just want to do whatever it takes to get us to win some games. I think it’s been going well,” Hart said. “Having John right next to me has been a big help. If one of us doesn’t know the play, we can talk.”

Playing next to each other in the middle of Waterville’s defense is a help, too. The pair play off each other’s strengths, Evans said.

“Cooper loves the run stop. I love the pass stop. If you watch any of our games, you see I’m really the cut back guy on a lot of runs. Cooper’s making the initial contact. I’m there to finish it off. On a lot of pass plays, I’m chasing the ball down and Cooper is right behind me,” Evans said.

Along with an experienced senior class, Hart and Evans have expectations for this season.

“Everyone wants to be here, and everyone wants to be on the field on doing well. They’re putting in the time to make sure that happens,” Hart said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @tLazarczykMTM

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