The 2021 Maine high school football season starts this week with great unknowns. With no tackle football during the 2020-21 school year, the normal progression of underclassmen gaining experience has been disrupted.

Who are the top players on other teams? Does my team have enough linemen? Are the quarterbacks up to speed for varsity play? Do we remember how to tackle and block after playing 7-on-7 flag games last fall?

But there is one fact that makes players, coaches and fans stop and smile: Football is back.

“Rank us first, rank us last, I don’t give a damn, just let’s go out and play football with pads and watch the kids have fun,” said Freeport Coach Paul St. Pierre. “That’s what it’s about, just getting out and playing and having fun.”

The unrelenting coronavirus pandemic only serves to remind what was lost in 2020-21, when Maine was one of four states to not have a tackle football season. Several teams already have had to quarantine players this summer, wreaking havoc on preseason plans and causing would-be scrimmage opponents to scramble for alternatives.

“The sense of urgency is there, knowing you’ve got this opportunity but you don’t know how long it’s going to last,” said Thornton Coach Kevin Kezal. “The virus is still out there, so just cherish every day you have, and I think kids have done that so far.”



Coaches admit they really won’t know much about their opponents until they get a look at the film. Without a season last year, relatively few players have varsity experience. Even those that did play in 2019 are now two years older, likely much stronger, and quite possibly playing a different position.

“I don’t know what anyone else has,” said Wells Coach Tim Roche. “A lot of these guys who are going to be playing were freshmen or JV players. I mean, no disrespect to anybody, but I don’t know who was on Fryeburg’s JV team two years ago. Last year, if we had had a season, I would have understood Leavitt was loaded. This year, I don’t know. I don’t know who York is as a team, even though they’re right down the road.”

Right now, coaches are still trying to decipher what they have in their own programs.

Wells Coach Tim Roche gives a postgame speech after the Warriors won the 2018 Class D state championship. Wells will play in Class C this fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They feel like they have two freshmen classes – this year’s and the current sophomores. The installation of plays and schemes has gone slower. No one had made a tackle or executed a full-force block in nearly two years.

Coaches have had to go a bit slower in preseason practice to make sure fundamentals are understood before the full playbook is installed.


“You basically now have two freshmen classes that you’re trying to work with that have never played for you, while at the same time trying to get juniors and seniors back into football shape,” Roche said. “I’ve definitely slowed things down this year. After two practices, I realized I had to slow things down. It’s not difficult. It’s just different.”

Oxford Hills Coach Mark Soehren agreed.

“We just don’t quite understand our assignments as well,” he said. “And there are always a couple kids that you look at, and you know if they had had last year to develop they would be absolutely ready to play varsity football, but now that kid maybe needs a half season to get up to speed.”


One of the biggest impacts of playing only flag football in 2020 is that the game, by its very nature, left out the big dudes, especially the offensive linemen. And in 11-man football, the often-anonymous linemen are the unselfish and integral engine of a team.

“There’s so much unknown, especially in the line, because no one played last year,” said Scarborough Coach Packy Malia. “There’s not too many (teams) that had (sophomore) standouts in the offensive line two years ago.”


Teams tried to varying degrees to keep their linemen engaged, working out and staying part of the team, but it was more about conditioning than football.

“Here we are 21, 22 months from our last game and they’re finally putting pads and helmets on again, and we’re trying to simulate that physicality and invariably we’re behind,” said Portland Coach Jason McLeod. “And when you make a mistake on the offensive line, it gets amplified. Everyone knows about it.”

Gardiner High football players huddle during a practice on Aug. 19. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Several coaches noted that some players who were part of the program did not return this year. While attrition has always been a part of high school football, the inactivity and isolation caused by the pandemic was a factor.

“We have to get linemen out. I had a lot opt out of 7-on-7 and they never came back,” said Freeport’s St. Pierre.

“I’d like to think if we had had a (2020 season), we wouldn’t have lost a few kids we were counting on,” said Alex Rotsko, coach at Class B power Marshwood. Rotsko said the Hawks lost some players to prep schools, and others got jobs.

“And then there are some sitting around the house doing nothing.”


Soehren of Oxford Hills has a strong group of upperclassmen, but when he looks at his smaller sophomore class, he doesn’t see many big guys. When the school day became mostly remote and football didn’t have a place for them, “they became more disengaged from school, not just sports. They need that daily contact. And some just sort of disappeared. The skill guys are back. It’s a lineman issue.”


Most coaches seem oddly confident in how well their quarterbacks will play, even if their starter has never played a varsity game. That’s partly because of the amount of reps they had in 7-on-7, and because of the work the players have done on their own.

“A little bit of it is the 7-on-7 work, and I think if there’s one area where football players can seek offensive work on their own, it’s quarterbacks,” said Kevin Cooper, noting the local Red Zone Academy run by Cape Elizabeth Coach Sean Green as one example. “Quarterbacks are going all over to seek out instruction. They’re more prepared to function in an offense today than they were 10-15 years ago.”

Also, today’s high school quarterbacks, by necessity, have to learn how to digest information from video study. So when the pandemic turned practices into mostly virtual activities, the young QBs were more adept at absorbing playbook and scheme information than many of their teammates.

Kennebunk quarterback Keegan Andrews throws the ball during a practice last week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Quarterbacks have to learn more. Can they learn more virtually? Absolutely. They can process more football information,” Cooper said.


A surprising number of teams actually have a returning quarterback, like Jake Beninati at Sanford.

Beninati was forced into the starting lineup midway through his sophomore season because of injury, and then was further challenged when more injuries and disciplinary issues eliminated several other key players. Now he’s a solid 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, with a strong, accurate arm.

“He had some really good moments as a 10th-grade kid who got thrown into the wolves, and through his almost two-year hiatus he’s stuck with it, grown, gotten stronger,” said Sanford Coach Mike Fallon. “He loves being a quarterback and he has sought out a lot of training camps that have clearly helped to improve his skill set.”


At its core, football is a collision sport that comes down to being able to either put the man with the ball to the ground or keep him upright.

“Kids have to learn to tackle, block and run to the football again,” said Cape Elizabeth’s Green. “I think we’ll see some sloppy football to start, similar to the preseason and first few weeks every year in the NFL. “The other thing is, these kids will need to re-learn what football feels like, in-game, (and) after the game recovering and taking care of their bodies.”

Roche said he thinks fans will be fine with seeing a few missed tackles, or the occasional bobbled snap from center.

“People just want to go back to watching high school football. I think people want to see this again. That’s my hope, that the rest of the year we’re going to see good-sized crowds at these schools.”

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