PORTLAND — The final score is an illusion. Bonny Eagle 34, Thornton Academy 21 does not suggest a close game. Don’t be fooled. The Class A state championship football game was a nail biter until midway through the fourth quarter, when Bonny Eagle capitalized on a pair of Thornton turnovers to pull away and make a close game a little more lopsided.

This is what the Maine Principals Association wanted when it decided to trim Class A to a lean eight schools. Over the last few seasons, state championship games have been routs, more often than not, and Class A has gorging at the all-you-can-eat blowout buffet. Entering Saturday’s championship game at Fitzpatrick Stadium, nine of the last 10 Class A state finals were decided by 10 or more points.

While that was the case again this season, at least the outcome was in doubt late. After scoring a touchdown with 1:24 to play to cut Bonny Eagle’s lead to 13 points, the Trojans recovered an onside kick and threatened to make the game even tighter.

This is what we wanted, even if getting here was the same-old, same-old regular season of blowouts and running time.

“If the goal is to get the two best teams in the state in the state game, I certainly think that’s what happened. It turned out to be a great game today,” Bonny Eagle coach Kevin Cooper said.

Cooper knows from championships. Saturday’s win made Cooper 9-0 in gold ball games. Seven wins as Bonny Eagle’s coach, and two more as a player at Lawrence High School in the mid-1980s. To call yourself the best, you need to beat the best, and Cooper and his Scots knew this. They lost at Thornton Academy in early October, 21-14.

“We learned from that, and that’s what led to this. I’m happy we lost down there. Regular season is regular season. It’s about who wins in playoffs,” Bonny Eagle senior Nate Ferris, who scored a pair of touchdowns Saturday, said. “We knew we’d have to play our best game November 23. We all knew what was going to happen. Cooper knew what was going to happen… We knew we were the better team.”

A primary reason given for the lean, mean eight team Class A was competitive balance. Too many teams struggled against the top three teams in the Class — Bonny Eagle, Thornton, and Scarborough. So Class A was whittled to the eight largest football playing schools. The regular season routs continued. The first round of the Class A playoffs wasn’t much better. The combined score of the four Class A quarterfinals was 201-3, with the top four seeds barely breaking a sweat to advance.

Bonny Eagle’s regular season consisted on seven blowouts and two tighter games, the loss at Thornton and a close win over Scarborough. The big three were joined by Oxford Hills in the Class A final four. Oxford Hills is good, but still has a ways to go to reach the class of the three teams it’s chasing. The Trojans beat Oxford Hills 48-9 in the semifinals

“We knew it would come down to those three teams. I like the new schedule. I like that we had an extra regular season game,” Ferris said. “I especially like how it gave us the opportunity to be in the championship game against a strong team like Thornton, or a strong team like Scarborough.”

In the past, Saturday’s Class A state final would have been the South regional championship. Fans across the state would dub that game the real Class A state final, and those fans would be right.

“We would’ve won the state championship like 50-0. I like this,” Ferris said.

A close state championship game is not proof of a healthy Class A. There are still just three teams that enter the season with a realistic chance of hoisting the gold ball on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. There is no quick fix for this. Some programs work at getting better, and some sulk and hope improvement comes through osmosis.

Expanding Class A back to 10, 12, or even 14 schools might give the teams at the bottom more competitive regular season games in which to gauge their improvement. It certainly doesn’t make sense for winless teams to play a playoff game for the sake of filling out an arbitrary bracket.

On Saturday, Cooper was focused on his team’s accomplishment. Fixing Class A would rightly have to wait.

“It’s probably not a conversation to have right now. No matter what ends up happening, we know we have to beat Thornton Academy. We have to beat Scarborough. We do that, we know we have a chance of walking out of Fitzpatrick Stadium with a gold ball,” Cooper said.

Even a game played between the top two teams in the Class couldn’t be played without controversy. Early in the second quarter, a Thornton touchdown was called back for an illegal man downfield penalty on a screen pass. Officials even marked off the penalty yardage, then decided to get together and make sure they were on the same page.

This is the exact opposite way it should be done. Officials working a state championship game have to do better.

After conferring, the officials waved off the flag and awarded the Trojans what was at the time the game-tying touchdown. It was a mess unworthy of a state game. Cooper handled the mess as calmly as could be expected. If his team saw him Cooper flip out, they’d flip out, and that wasn’t going to help the situation.

“The person who came over to tell me the story is not the one who made the call, so I’m not going to yell at him,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to talk to kids constantly about play the next play. That’s what smart teams, mature teams, do. Team that can win championships. We weren’t going to come today and beat Thornton Academy 41-0. That wasn’t going to happen.”

Thankfully, that did not happen. We got the close game everyone in the Maine high school football community wanted. There are still plenty of things the need fixing in high school football, and Saturday’s Class A final was not a cure.

But it was a start.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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