The Yarmouth football team was driving down the field when Maranacook coach Jordan DeMillo heard a cry from his players.

“I heard my kids say ‘Come on guys. We’re the No. 1 defense,’ ” DeMillo said. “Sure enough, I called a couple of blitz packages, we stalled them right there for four downs. We got the ball back, we marched down the field and scored, and that was a total momentum change.”

The momentum never swung back. The Black Bears beat the Clippers 44-12, wrapping up an 8-0 regular season.

“Watching that composure take over was pretty cool to watch,” DeMillo said. “When our backs are against the wall and we can rely our defense, that’s going to really help us later on.”

Maranacook isn’t the only team banking on that being the case as the playoffs are set to begin. The Black Bears rank first in eight-man football with 15.3 points allowed per game, but strong defenses are a theme in the area across the classes. In the the Pine Tree Conference Class B, Cony rode a defense allowing a league-best 9.25 points per game to an 8-0 record and the No. 2 seed. In Class D South, the top scoring defenses belong to No. 1 Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale (11.5 points per game) and No. 3 Oak Hill (18.6).

Some of those defenses, like Cony’s, have been stellar all season. Others, like Oak Hill’s, have come along late. But those teams know that in the playoffs, when the temperature drops and the atmospheric and field conditions deteriorate, being good on that side of the ball is imperative.

“In general, if you look at the track records of teams that have won state championships or made deep runs, it’s teams that play defense first and foremost,” Cony coach B.L. Lippert said.

Cony linebacker Luke White tries to tackle Gardiner’s AJ Chadwick during the annual rivalry game Friday night at Hoch Field in Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

This was supposed to be the year Cony’s defense slid. The Rams were good in 2017 and terrific in 2018, but lost 10 starters and eight all-PTC defenders from last year’s group. After scrimmages against Gorham and Lawrence and early-season wins against Mt. Blue (35-18) and Skowhegan (35-7), however, Lippert saw that the defense hadn’t rebuilt, but reloaded.

There was significant concern … that we might not have the personnel to fill in,” he said. “There have been some guys that have stepped up, filled those voids and had an outstanding year defensively.”

The Rams did make a change — they eschewed last year’s five-man front for a three-man line led by Caleb MacFarland, Devon Thomas and Casey Mills — but a big part of their success has been defensive coordinator Brandon Terrill, who rarely lets his players sit back.

He sends blitzes all the time, he likes our defense very aggressive, and that’s the way I like it too,” outside linebacker Colin Manning said. “Be aggressive, hit the quarterback, get him flustered and make him make mistakes early.”

Such a style used to be for other teams. Not the Rams.

For the longest time Cony was known for throwing the ball 40 times and maybe not playing a ton of defense,” Lippert said. “This year we have the personnel to run the ball and play defense, and that’s what we’ve done. … It shortens the game, makes them earn everything, and if we can get a seven-, eight-minute drive that’s a little bit demoralizing.”

Things started rough for Oak Hill, which was gashed in a 29-0 loss to York in the opener and a 42-21 defeat by Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale in Week 3. Since a Week 4 bye, however, the Raiders have progressed. They shut out undefeated Bucksport through three quarters of a 21-14 loss, beat a high-scoring Spruce Mountain team 40-20, and then fell 16-13 to a strong Lisbon squad in the season finale.

“It’s a group effort. I don’t know if we have any stars on defense,” coach Stacen Doucette said. “I think we’re improving. We’ve got a lot of room to grow still. The kids are following the gameplan, they’re picking up the gameplan, so we are getting better.”

The Raiders are led by junior safety Gavin Rawstron, one of the best two-way players in the conference, and he said that it’s hard to pinpoint one area that has sparked the turnaround.

I think it’s mostly a team concept this year. We’ve got a lot of role players, and everyone does their role,” he said. “We lost a huge senior group last year, so having a lot of young kids step up now and see what game speed is like, they’ve stepped up a lot and they understand how to play.”

The Raiders’ inexperienced core needed time to mature. Those players have gotten it, and it’s been showing during what was arguably the toughest part of Oak Hill’s schedule.

After we lost to Winthrop, it clicked in our heads that Winthrop’s a tough team, this whole conference is a tough conference,” Rawstron said. “So we’re going to have to step it up in order to be one of the top teams.”

At Maranacook, DeMillo heard the chatter everywhere. That offense reigns in the eight-man game, and defense is an afterthought.

Right away, he wanted his team to be different.

I told my assistant coach (Jake Bessey), we’re going to be the counterpoint,” he said. “I want to keep these low-scoring games, I want to be able to control the game, and we’ve been able to do that so far.”

DeMillo did wonder how it would happen — until he saw he had a pair of standout defensive tackles in Ashael Plum and Wyatt Douin, giving his linebackers, led by Joey Dupont and Clayton House, lanes to get into the backfield and cut down the opponent’s running game.

Our linebackers are coming up and plugging the gaps,” DeMillo said, “but it definitely helps when I’ve got two linemen that command double teams.”

DeMillo knows it’s not the sexiest way to play, especially when other eight-man teams are scoring 30, 40 or 50 points per game. At the same time, however, he knows it’s not a coincidence that the blue-collar Black Bears are where they’re at.

I think it definitely translates over,” he said. “We’re not the highest-scoring offense, but we do have an 8-0 record.”

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