Maranacook football coach Walter Polky instructs his team on a drill during practice Wednesday at Maranacook Community High School. Photo by Jennifer Bechard

READFIELD — It was only two seasons ago that, for the Maranacook football team, going to practice every day had all the fun and excitement of a trip to the dentist.

The Black Bears were on their way to a winless 2016, and each loss was a blow to the team’s psyche and resolve. Maranacook lost six games by double figures, each time giving up more than 35 points while struggling to score points themselves.

And as the season wore on, what began as a challenging fall began to feel more like a hopeless endeavor.

“In 2016, it was like ‘Why even show up?’ ” senior defensive end Ben Douin said. “We weren’t doing anything, playing guys that bigger than us, more talented than us.”

Now, the Black Bears are enjoying life on the other side. Maranacook is 2-0 this season after reaching the Class E championship game a season ago, riding a hot start that has included an 8-0 win over Class E newcomer Old Orchard Beach and a 38-0 victory over Traip.

The Black Bears are winning, two seasons after that possibility seemed out of the question.

“The confidence has really gotten up on the team,” senior linebacker Dakota DeMott said. “After the way last season went, coming into this season and winning the first two games we’ve played, we’ve definitely had more of a spark.”

The Black Bears are still a work in progress. They’re still in Class E, their roster is still small at 25 players, and the youth system still needs to improve. But there’s hope. And for the coaches and players, that’s refreshing enough.

“We’re going in the right direction,” second-year coach Walter Polky said. “We’re going the right way. We’ve had more success than I thought we were going to have.”

Maranacook is hardly alone; low numbers and struggling programs have become a growing trend across the state. The Maine Principals Association started Class E last season for ailing teams, and after only six dropped down last year, nine teams made the move this year. Thin rosters have become such an issue that 8-on-8 football has been a popular talking point since the season began.

The situation was particularly dire at Maranacook, where too young and too inexperienced players made up too much of the roster, and as the Black Bears endured blowout after blowout, frustration mounted.

“It was definitely rough,” junior running back Garit Laliberte said. “The day after and going to school, knowing that you lost by that much, it definitely hurt.”

“Everyone was getting down on each other,” Douin said. “You’re just getting ticked off. ‘Oh, this person did this wrong. This person did this wrong.’ It wasn’t helping us.”

Maranacook went 0-8 and was one of the first teams to drop from Class D to E, a move that seemed at first to be another setback for a struggling program.

Maranacook’s Ben Douin runs through a drill during practice Wednesday at Maranacook Community High School. Photo by Jennifer Bechard

Until the Black Bears saw the benefits that came with it.

“It was kind of ‘Jeez, we went from losing season, not winning a game, to dropping a class and everybody picking at you,’ ” Douin said. “But then again … it allows us to focus on what we can get good at and keep doing those things.”

The Black Bears also got a coach prepared for the task. Polky had steered a successful program at Spruce Mountain, and when he joined Maranacook, he set about changing the culture. He was patient with the players. He played as many as he could, knowing playing time was crucial to their development. And he made it a point to see the potential each player had.

“He knows his stuff,” Douin said. “He finds a way to push you to what he knows you can do and beyond that. … All these guys have seen that and they push themselves and strive to do better.”

“It’s a whole trust thing,” Polky said. “One thing I tell them is that I’m going to work as hard as I can every single day to help them get better. And to be able to show that to them, that’s how they buy in.”

With Polky teaching as much as coaching, the Black Bears were improving, and they were also getting the wins to go with it. Maranacook went 6-2 in the regular season before reaching the Class E championship game, and with most of their starters returning, the Black Bears have taken another step forward this year. Maranacook beat Old Orchard Beach and Traip, teams to which it lost by a combined score of 84-23 two seasons ago.

“We went out there (last year) and we won the first couple of games, and we were like ‘Yeah, we get the hang of this now. We can definitely get back in the swing of things,’ ” Laliberte said. “And this year, we continued what we had last year.”

Polky said he’s seen further improvements this season.

“We’re a much more cohesive unit,” he said. “The individualism is not as much this year as it was last year. … Our practices are better. The little details, things like that, that just shows that we’re doing the right thing.”

With improved play and better numbers — Maranacook has 25 players after starting last year with 17 — there’s been enough optimism to stoke thoughts of a return to Class D.

“It’s on my mind and the coaches’ minds,” Laliberte said. “If we keep growing, it’s obviously going to work out with us going to Class D.”

That could be in the future. But Polky was quick to point out that plenty of work still needs to be done.

“We’re still scratching the surface of it,” he said. “Our summer workouts aren’t where they need to be. That’s where a winning culture comes from. It’s putting in the work when no one’s looking.

“We’re still not out of the woods yet by any means. To build a football program, it takes more than 16 games. It takes years.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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