Tyler Bridge of Wells High is congratulated by Portland High’s Zach Elowitch after Bridge was honored with the Fitzpatrick Trophy in January 2019. Bridge became the first Class D player to receive the award. Ariana van den Akker/Staff Photographer

Over its nearly half-century history, the Fitzpatrick Trophy has evolved. Started in 1971 to honor the top senior high school football player in what was known as the Big Eight league, it shifted to include all of Class A the next year. Beginning in 1996, all of Maine’s high school seniors became eligible.

This year, that included players from the new 10-team, eight-man football league. Two eight-man players – Garit Laliberte of Maranacook and Connor Crawford of Ellsworth – were among the 12 players named as semifinalists.

When the 49th winner is announced at the annual James J. Fitzpatrick Awards banquet on Sunday at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, the award will go to either a Class A or B player. The finalists are Justin Bryant of Class B champion Marshwood, Jarett Flaker of Class A Scarborough and Zach Maturo of Class A champion Bonny Eagle.

“I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the three,” said Scarborough Coach Lance Johnson.

But Maine’s football landscape is in the midst of seismic change and small-school football is taking over. This season, there were only eight Class A teams. The number of eight-man football programs is expected to at least double next season. Some projections are that nearly one-third of Maine’s 77 football programs will be eight-man squads as soon as this fall.

Is it time for the Fitzpatrick Trophy to adapt again?

Jack Dawson, the longtime chairman of the Fitzpatrick selection committee, said there was little discussion around including eight-man players this year. The general feeling was that the state’s chapter of the National Football Foundation, a co-sponsor of the award, supports eight-man football, so the Fitzy committee should, too.

“But now that there are a couple of eight-man kids in the mix, the question does arise,” Dawson said. “Suppose one of the eight-man players is a finalist or wins it, would there be kickback from other communities?

“With a third of the state playing eight-man, I don’t think we could say the Fitzpatrick is only for 11-man,” Dawson added.

But will it be a fair comparison?

Jordan DeMillo, Laliberte’s coach at Maranacook, said he was pleasantly surprised his player made the semifinal cut.

“But I think moving forward, it would be very, very hard for an eight-man player, outside of just putting up insurmountable statistics, to actually make the case for themselves to be one of the top three in the state,” DeMillo said. “It would be kind of cool if they thought of doing an eight-man version.”

While the selection committee chooses the semifinalists, the winner is chosen by a vote of head coaches and media members. This year’s winner will be announced by 1994 winner Justin Tardiff, who played at Oxford Hills.

This year’s finalists would indicate that, at least for now, playing for a top team in an upper division is still a significant factor.

If Flaker or Maturo win, they will be the 42nd winner from Class A. Bryant would be the fourth Class B winner. When Maine was a three-class system, two Class C players won. Last season, Tyler Bridge became the first Class D Fitzpatrick winner.

Bryant rushed for 1,522 yards and 33 touchdowns, five in the Class B championship game. At inside linebacker, he made 68 tackles – 19 for loss, with four sacks. Flaker scored 26 total touchdowns, rushing for 1,266 yards and 16 scores, to go along with 314 yards and seven TDs receiving and 470 yards and three scores on returns. Maturo, the Varsity Maine and Gatorade Maine player of the year, scored 25 touchdowns, rushed for 1,264 yards, caught 21 passes, returned punts and kicks, and was the punter for the Class A champions.

“The nice thing about the Fitzpatrick Trophy is the selection process is a good one,” said Alex Rotsko, Bryant’s coach at Marshwood. “I think they do it the right way. Coaches nominate them and then (after the semifinalists are selected) every coach in the state gets a vote, so I don’t know how you can make it any more fair than that.”

But, with recent classification shifts, the voting demographic has shifted away from Class A. There were 22 teams in Class B in 2019, making it the largest class. That means more coaches’ eyeballs watched Bryant, either in person or on film.

“I thought about that when I was nominating Jarett,” Johnson said. “The majority of Class B coaches don’t get to see film on him.”

And by next season, eight-man football could have more coaches than any 11-man class. Dawson noted that if all the eight-man coaches voted as a block, they could make a very strong statement.

DeMillo doesn’t see that happening any time soon.

“Usually the Fitzpatrick goes to a Class A kid, but you know what, when you think of the competitive level of teams like Thornton Academy and Bonny Eagle, you do understand,” DeMillo said. “Those guys are putting up incredible stats against incredible competition.”

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