Maranacook quarterback Garit Laliberte drops to pass against Boothbay at the Ricky Gibson Field of Dreams last Friday in Readfield. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

The league was new. The rivals were new. The style of play was new. Everything was new. Even the coach was new.

And yet, even with question marks everywhere going in, the Maranacook football team had a feeling this fall was going to be a good one.

I definitely had confidence in who we had for skill players and who we had for linemen and linebackers,” senior quarterback Garit Laliberte said. “This is one of the better football teams we’ve had.”

But they didn’t expect this. Six-plus weeks into the season, and Maranacook is one of six teams in the state, and the only one in the inaugural eight-man football class, with an undefeated record. At 6-0 and with a key rematch with Mt. Ararat on tap this week, the Black Bears are third in the class in scoring offense (31 points per game), first in scoring defense (14.3) and riding a swell of confidence with the playoffs fast approaching.

I really didn’t expect us to do this well, if I’m going to be honest,” junior wide receiver Joey Dupont said. “But then we started playing really well, had a good start and started playing really well on the road. We did way better than I expected.”

“I 100 percent was confident that Yarmouth and Ararat were probably going to be right near the top,” coach Jordan DeMillo said. “I didn’t think we would take on eight-man as well as we have. But it’s certainly exciting to watch.”

The Black Bears, though, had hurdles to clear. One was at coach, where DeMillo, an assistant with the team the previous two seasons, slid into the head role for the first time and soon found out he had much to learn.

“I didn’t know how that was all going to mold together,” said DeMillo, who credited assistant Jacob Bessey with helping the team run smoothly. “Instituting new offense, new defense, it just seemed like I had a mountain ahead of me this summer.”

His players, however, feel he’s figured it out.

He’s really smart, he knows his stuff,” senior linebacker Clayton House said. “I’m glad he’s our coach. … I wouldn’t want anyone else to be.”

There was also the game itself. Maranacook had to get down the eight-man style and all its subtle differences — formation tweaks, procedure changes, positional responsibilities. With only three players on the defensive line, tackles had to learn to take up space, rather than penetrate. Safeties had to learn to play in the box, rather than up high. Corners had to learn to both cover their man and contain the run.

All of this took some trial and error.

“Our first idea was using the defense we’ve played with the last couple of years,” Dupont said. “We went into a preseason scrimmage, played against our other backup team, and it really didn’t work at all. We didn’t line up well, so we had to kind of readjust our whole defense.”

There was an adjustment period — including a flag-filled 14-6 opening victory over Boothbay — but the Black Bears soon got the new game figured out.

It was a little weird in the beginning, just figuring it out and learning new positions and stuff,” House said. “We got used to it pretty quick.”

With the wrinkles sorted out, Maranacook’s advantage became clear. The Black Bears didn’t have depth in recent years, but they had athleticism. In 11-man football, that depth was stretched, and those thin areas could get targeted and exploited.

In eight-man, however, those weaker players are off the field, leaving Maranacook with eight players who are big, fast, or both.

“I think the majority of the team was OK with the eight-man thing,” Laliberte said. “Our biggest problem was just finding linemen that could hold blocks and stuff, so now that we need less linemen, it’s easier.”

“(It) really kind of opened up our playbook,” DeMillo said. “Now I’m sitting there going ‘Now I can have skill guys here, I can pound the ball if I want, I can open up and pass it,’ because I’ve got three good linemen on the field.”

That athleticism has given Maranacook a versatile offense, led by dual-threat quarterback Laliberte and a strong pair of wideouts in Isac Philbrick and Dupont, but it’s shown up even more on the defensive side. The Black Bears are fundamentally solid and consistent tacklers, and rarely give up the long score in a league where there’s a threat for a big play at any moment.

According to DeMillo, if there’s a key to being undefeated, it’s come on that side of the ball.

“It’s 100 percent our defense,” he said. “We have a very good balance of big men up front and skilled guys who can tackle, but also do really well in coverage. That’s what you need in eight-man. They’re very comfortable with it.”

DeMillo makes sure the caliber of play doesn’t slip. He goes over tackling technique once a week, and splits the first team so that starters tackle starters in practice.

We have starters on both sides, so it’s more game-like when you tackle people,” Laliberte said. “You’re not tackling freshmen, you’re tackling seniors.”

If there was one more obstacle to clear, it was a dismissive attitude from the outside regarding the eight-man game. The Black Bears heard those scoffs. They’re hearing them less often now.

“It’s a little tough to take. … My players hear it too, and it’s tough for them,” DeMillo said. “But largely, the team and some of the parents that at first were a little hesitant, as well as the community, have bought into it.”

As Laliberte pointed out, it’s the same game.

“Eight-man is still football,” he said. “You’re still getting tackled at the end of the day, and you’re still having to make the same plays.”

So far, Maranacook’s been doing it better than anyone.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.