Waterville’s Dustan Hunter is taken down by Cheverus’ Matthew Fogg during a game last season in Portland. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

WATERVILLE — There’s not much separation at the top of the eight-man Large School class this year.

Teams have engaged in tight contests across the board, creating plenty of parity.  

Although a few impressive performances have been delivered, Waterville second-year coach Isaac LeBlanc is quick to point out that no team appears to be head and shoulders above the rest.

“Looking at some of the matchups and watching the games on film, you can tell that there’s a bunch of teams real close to each other right there at the top,” he said. “It really comes down to who plays cleaner and who executes better on a given night.”

The Purple Panthers (3-0) will have to do exactly that this week against Spruce Mountain (2-1) in one of the most appetizing eight-man clashes of the 2022 season. Waterville will be under the lights for homecoming against a Spruce Mountain team that’s one of the biggest and most physical in the eight-man ranks.

Waterville enters the matchup as one of two eight-man Large School undefeated teams (Yarmouth is the other). The Purple Panthers claimed lopsided wins over Ellsworth/Sumner and Greely to begin the season before pulling out a key win over Mt. Desert Island last week.


The 26-20 Week 3 victory in Bar Harbor came after the Purple Panthers enjoyed a bye week. Spruce Mountain, meanwhile, has scored 116 points in its last two games after it dropped a 28-26 decision to MDI in the season opener.The Phoenix are coming an impressive 54-22 win over Morse, which turned heads around the league.

Waterville’s Dustan Hunter intercepts a pass intended for MDI’s Brendan Graves during an eight-man Large North playoff game last season at Drummond Field in Waterville. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We came out and played very well the whole night,” said Spruce Mountain head coach David Frey. “We played solid on both sides of the ball. I’ve been telling them all season since the start of the season that that’s something we need to do, and we were able to do it against a good Morse team.”

Much of Spruce Mountain’s offensive success has come from a single source: running back Reece Davis. The senior back rushed for 212 yards on just four carries two weeks ago against Ellsworth/Sumner. He then eclipsed 330 yards and scored six touchdowns on 18 carries in the victory over Morse.

For Waterville, containing Spruce Mountain means finding a way to stop the 200-pound Davis. That’s a challenging task against a back who has remarkable speed and ability to change direction for his size — and, as LeBlanc will note, knows full well how to use that frame and skill set to his advantage.

“It’s going to take us doing our jobs, being quick off the ball and knowing our assignments,” LeBlanc said. “We know we’re going to have to be physical with the kid because he’s not afraid to run hard; he’s going to run through you, and he’s going to run around you. He’s got it all, and we’ll have to be at our very best defensively.”

Waterville, though, has no shortage of its own weapons, both offensively and defensively. Dawson Harrison and Dustan Hunter have excelled at essentially every skill position on offense; Wyatt Gradie is a skilled passer who can also make plays with his feet; Spencer Minihan is a sure-handed receiver and is routinely the Panther’s top tackler on defense.


Waterville’s Dawson Harrison tackles Cheverus’ Peyton Mitchell during a game last season in Portland. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

Against MDI, Hunter filled in at quarterback for much of the game after Gradie left with an injury in the second quarter. Although LeBlanc already knows which of the two players will be lining up under center Friday night, those outside of the program won’t know until the Panthers take the field for the first time on offense.

“I think our guys really buy into the mentality that you have to be able to change your plan and be flexible to reach the goals you want to reach,” LeBlanc said. “We’re going to game plan and put something together that we feel is going to help us try to win a ballgame, and our guys know that means we have to be ready in different situations.”

It’s homecoming weekend for Waterville, which means the Purple Panthers — who otherwise play their home games on Saturday afternoons in the fall — will get to experience the Friday night lights. That’s sure to bring out extra emotion and intensity from Waterville, something Frey knows his team will need to match to leave Drummond Field with a win.

“Basically, (our goal) is what anybody is going to say ahead of a tough game like this: We have to play mistake-free football, and we have to come ready to play,” Frey said. “It’s a big game for us, but we know how big it is for them, too. They’re definitely going to be ready for us.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.