WATERVILLE — A big play is a big play, whether you’re in a helmet and pads or shorts and flags. So when Waterville Senior High School’s Mukie Znajmiecka returned an interception 100 yards with just over five minutes to play in the first quarter of Thursday afternoon’s 7-on-7 flag football game against Winslow, it drew cheers from the small Drummond Field crowd.

There is no high school football in Maine this fall, not in the traditional sense. Football and volleyball were cut from the fall sports calendar by state officials and the Maine Principals’ Association in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In football’s place is 7-on-7 flag football. Thursday afternoon, old rivals Waterville and Winslow squared off.

Waterville took a 34-25 victory. It won’t go down as a win in the traditional Battle of the Bridge against Winslow, which would have paused this season as the Purple Panthers were set to make the move to eight-man football if the season had progressed as originally planned. Still, anytime the Panthers and Black Raiders play anything, there are bragging rights to be had, and this day, those rights are on the Waterville side of the Kennebec River.

“I think most of us enjoyed our time on the field, and what we could make out of it,” Waterville senior Nate Weir said.

Reid Gagnon, a Winslow senior, agreed.

“Yeah, it was fun to be out here on the field with all my guys. It was nice to be on the field again and get a chance to be out here. I’m grateful for that because I didn’t know if I’d even get to touch the field with them for my last year. It’s good to be out here as a group,” Gagnon said. “It’s a lot of getting used to. It’s not football, obviously.”

Gagnon had two touchdown passes to Nate Newgard (who also had a nifty one-handed interception he returned for a score), and one to Evan Bourget.

Another big play: Waterville’s Cobe LeClair catching a pass tipped by a Winslow defender for a big gain in the final minute of the first half. The catch set up Tyson Smith’s touchdown pass to Dawson Harrison to give the Panthers a 22-19 halftime lead.

The rules are simple. Every play has to be a pass. The quarterback has four seconds from the snap to throw the ball, or it’s loss of down. The game is played in four 15 minute quarters of running time. The clock stops on scoring plays, timeouts, penalties, or injuries. Players used to one position often have to learn another quickly.

Take Weir, for example. A left guard on the offensive line his entire football-playing life, Weir was a force in Waterville’s passing attack. This lineman used to pulling and blocking ran slant patterns and drag routes like an experienced tight end.

“I’ve been running around. I never thought I’d be a receiver or safety, even. Those (positions) are made for the smaller, quicker kids. I might be slow, but if I make one good move I could be off running,” Weir said.

Don’t be fooled by the name of the game, nor the premise. Yes, it’s flag football, with no intentional tackling. But the emphasis is still football. There is contact, and anyone who didn’t think there would be is naive or willfully ignorant. You can’t defend a receiver without incidental contact. You certainly can’t try to rip off a flag to down a ball carrier without contact. There are collision on virtually every play, as sometimes two or three defensive players reach for a flag.

Waterville’s Billy Place celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Winslow during a seven-on-seven game Thursday in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

There was enough contact that a casual watcher would wonder why the players do not wear helmets. There was enough contact for one to think the state and MPA should have gone through with the plan the MPA originally approved and allowed football in the counties attending school under the green designation from the state CDC and Department of Education.

“There’s definitely contact. I mean, I got rocked one time running up the sideline,” Weir said, referring to a play in the third quarter in which he went down near midfield after returning an interception from Waterville’s 10-yard line. A play later, Winslow was penalized for a tackle. Old habits die hard.

“That’s the tough part. That’s when the interpretation comes in, if it was intent or not,” Gagnon said. “Lots of times there’s not really any intent behind it, but you’re going to catch a body sometimes.”

For one season (and hopefully not more), this is what we have. Athletes are making the most of it, because it’s something. Here in central Maine, they know there are parts of the state where coronavirus outbreaks make even 7-on-7 flag football nothing more than a wish.

So they will grab at that flag and not let go.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

 

 

 

 

 

 

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