PORTLAND — Kevin Kezal was in the middle of his celebration, but the Thornton Academy football coach was willing to take a trip back to the past.

Back to the days of hearing about soaring COVID cases and canceled games around the state. And waiting if the Trojans would be next. And dreading the notification that would confirm those fears.

“We were worried every week,” Kezal said. “Every time I checked my email, you’re hoping you don’t have an email that says there was a close contact on the previous team.”

On a chilly but otherwise perfect Saturday afternoon, however, a football season many weren’t sure would happen and then weren’t sure would be completed crossed the finish line. Thornton Academy in Class A and Marshwood in B won Gold Balls in the afternoon, while Winslow and Cape Elizabeth played for the Class C title at night.

There’s always a sense of joy coming from the teams earning Gold Balls, but this time, there was some relief mixed in. The players and coaches could exhale, as a season that seemed to spend the whole fall on thin ice got through unscathed. Somehow.

“We just took it as it came,” said Thornton linebacker Mason Paulin, who was part of a dominant Trojan defense and whose 50-yard interception return for a touchdown dealt Oxford Hills an early, devastating blow. “If it happens, it happens. It sucks. But we got lucky.”

“It feels good that it’s all over now,” said Marshwood senior safety Tim Gori, whose interception near the goal line in the second quarter proved massive at the end of the Hawks’ 14-13 win over Windham. “It’s like a huge, deep breath (after wondering) the entire year ‘Are we going to get there? Are we going to get there?’ And we finally got through it.”

The 2021 season got to have its championship highlights, the plays that the teams’ fans will be talking about for years to come. Plays like Anthony Jones’s 59- and 63-yard touchdown runs for Thornton, or Cameron Cornett’s 88-yard blocked field goal return for Marshwood, or Nick Garrison’s 70-yard interception return that had Windham thinking upset.

At points this season, it looked like those plays would not get the chance to happen. Not when climbing cases made it feel like the sport was pressing the start button to the season while wincing and covering its eyes. And not when a flurry of cancellations to begin the season had coaches, players and everyone around the game wondering just how in the world they were going to make it through this.

“We were very worried,” Gori said. “The past year, it happened to the seniors above us, their season got canceled. It was just so close to us, we got told we were going to have a season, and then we got told we might not. That was very scary.”

The hits just kept coming. Maranacook saw its first two games of the season canceled. Hermon was sidelined for the first three weeks. No one was safe. Mt. Blue had a game wiped out. So did John Bapst. So did Sanford, and Scarborough, and Old Town, and go on down the list. Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale, cruising through the season with a 5-1 record, had its postseason suddenly jeopardized by a COVID outbreak. Everywhere in the state, every class was affected.

And even the schools that sidestepped COVID wondered if it was just a matter of time until they didn’t.

“It was very stressful,” Paulin said. “For players that aren’t vaccinated, a lot of them didn’t even go to school. They tried to avoid close contacts, there were a whole bunch of things. But for the most part, we all tried to stay safe.”

“It got worse and worse throughout the season, honestly,” said Gori, whose Marshwood team dealt with its own COVID struggles in the preseason.

And yet, though the bad news kept coming, the sport that never got a chance last season stayed alive this time. Teams made due with the players that were healthy, played games on different days, and made it work. Players focused not on dreading a shutdown, but on enjoying and taking advantage of the games they did have.

It led to a championship Saturday that looked the way it always does, with tears and cheers and trophies and celebrations, capping off a season that looked nothing like any before it.

“Our kids just worked their tails off, and got themselves ready to go,” Kezal said. “You didn’t know (what would happen). You have no idea. … I’m so proud of these kids. They just kept their eyes on the big picture, almost like they were naive to think we were going to get through it. And we did.”

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