WATERVILLE — It’s not exactly what eight-man football is known for — but for the Waterville Purple Panthers, it’s exactly what’s worked over the past few weeks.

Among the trends that have emerged in eight-man football since the format’s introduction in 2019 has been high-scoring games. With some extra space offensive players have to run with fewer defenders on the field, defensive battles have been somewhat rare.

For a while, Waterville was no exception to that rule, winning by an average score of 41.3-36.9 a year ago and averaging 40.8 points over its first four games this year. Instead, as the Panthers prepare to face Yarmouth for the Large School title at 11 a.m. Saturday at Cony High School, it’s been defense, not offense, that has carried them to this point.

“Our defense is just flying around right now,” said junior Wyatt Gradie. “I think, honestly, this is the best defense I’ve ever been a part of on a football field. Shoutout to everybody because everybody out there is doing their job and making plays.”

Waterville has allowed just 12 points in each of its playoff wins, both of which have come by 22-12 scores. The Panthers defeated No. 2 Morse in the semifinals before knocking off top-ranked Mt. Desert Island in last week’s Large School North championship game to repeat as regional champs.

Entering Friday’s showdown in Bar Harbor, MDI had been averaging 46.8 points per game over a five-game winning streak that catapulted it to the top of the Large North standings. Yet Waterville was able to shut down the Trojans, who mustered less than 200 yards of offense.


“It was all about film,” said Waterville’s Dustan Hunter. “We watched so much film, and we worked really hard all week to be able to execute the game plan we had. They’re an incredible team, and we knew we were going to be seeing them again and would have to be able to stop them.”

Waterville trailed 12-6 at the break after MDI scored twice in the final seven minutes of the first half. The Panthers, though, rebounded by holding the Trojans scoreless in the second half, and the offense complemented the defense with the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth and another to seal it with three minutes to go.

Waterville football coach Isaac LeBlanc looks on during a practice Wednesday at Colby College in Waterville. The Purple Panthers are preparing to face Yarmouth in the eight-man Large School title game Saturday at Cony High in Augusta. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“You get to this point and figure out what you have to do to win games, and that’s how we’re winning games right now,” said Waterville head coach Isaac LeBlanc. “Our defense is definitely a strong point for us. … They just locked down (against MDI), and we played probably our best game of the season.”

The wins over Morse and MDI saw Waterville defeat their Large North counterparts for the second times this season. The Purple Panthers defeated MDI 26-20 in Bar Harbor in Week 3 and put forth another defensive showing against Morse in a 26-8 Week 6 win at Drummond Field.

The Panthers held the Shipbuilders to 148 yards of offense in the regular season after a bye week that followed a 50-32 loss to Spruce Mountain. The poor defensive showing against the Phoenix left the Panthers hungry to improve on that side of the ball, and although stumbles to Mt. Ararat and Camden Hills to end the regular season followed, Waterville ultimately returned to form.

“We talked about just regrouping and getting back to the things that had made us successful, and we were able to do that,” LeBlanc said. “We’ve got a lot of talent, both our younger kids and our older guys, and the kids really bought into the idea of, ‘If you want to win the whole thing, you’ve got to do it together.’”


Now comes the second straight state championship game for Waterville (6-3), which lost 56-0 to Cheverus in last year’s eight-man Large School matchup. The Panthers will have another tough task in South No. 2 Yarmouth (9-1), which knocked off No. 1 Mt. Ararat 20-18 to win the Large School South crown.

Waterville football coach Isaac LeBlanc talks to players during a practice Wednesday at Colby College in Waterville. The Purple Panthers are preparing to face Yarmouth in the eight-man Large School title game Saturday at Cony High in Augusta. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

In Yarmouth, Waterville will face possibly the best player it’s seen all season in Michael McGonagle. The junior running back set the team’s single-season rushing record this year as he ran for more than 2,000 yards, including a 433-yard, five-touchdown performance Sept. 23 against MDI.

Waterville’s defense, then, will have to be even more on top of its game than it has during its recent run if the Panthers want to capture the Gold Ball that eluded them at the final hurdle last year. After a series of grind-it-out defensive battles brought Waterville to this point, the team is more than prepared if it finds itself in another.

“You just have to be ready to grind out every game,” Hunter said. “That’s what we’re ready to go out and do as a team, as a group, as a unit — in unison, as they say. We’ve only got one more this year, and to bring home a Gold Ball, we have to do it again.”

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