BAR HARBOR — The games happen every year — but never before like this.
In Hancock County, Ellsworth vs. Mount Desert Island needs no explanation. Whether in soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, swimming or any other head-to-head sport, competitions between the Eagles and Trojans are circled on the calendar by athletes at both schools.
Yet in the 54 seasons since the consolidation of MDI High School created the rivalry, the two schools have never met for a regular season game in one of America’s most fabled sports. In just one more day, though, that’s all about to change.
The Ellsworth/Sumner and MDI football teams are set to meet in their first-ever regular season game when they face off at 7 p.m. tomorrow, Oct. 15, in Bar Harbor. It’s a matchup more than five decades in the making for the Eagles and Trojans, both of whom will make history when they battle for bragging rights in the regular season finale.
“We’ve played each other a lot in a lot of different sports, but not in football,” MDI head coach Mark Arnold said. “It’s a big moment for both of our programs, and we know that people are excited about it like they always are for Ellsworth-MDI games.”
More than a decade before MDI High School came into existence, Ellsworth and the old Bar Harbor High School played one another in football four times between 1951 and 1955. The games were reasonably competitive with Bar Harbor winning three of the four Little Ten Conference battles.
Following the 1955 season, unfortunately, the matchups between the Eagles and Seasiders went away after Ellsworth High School discontinued football. Although MDI would go on to establish itself as a strong program in the sport, the school wouldn’t get a chance to meet the Eagles until a revived Ellsworth/Sumner program began an annual preseason series with the Trojans in 2013.
The exhibition natures of those games and discrepancies between the Class C championship-caliber Trojans and fledgling Class D Eagles, though, made the outcomes of those contests less significant. Now, with both programs playing in the Large-School North eight-man division, the atmosphere surrounding the matchup is much different.
“Rivalry games are something special, and to be able to play able to play it in football in a game that counts is especially special,” said Ellsworth/Sumner head coach Dave Svec. “A rivalry is supposed to be a battle, and football is a battle sport. It adds that epic aspect to the whole thing.”
The season has been a trying one for Ellsworth/Sumner (0-3). The Eagles have had some natural on-field struggles stemming from a roster that had just one player with varsity experience entering the season, and the team also went nearly a month without playing a game as a result of three straight COVID-related cancellations.
“We definitely got pretty antsy [going through weeks without playing],” said Ellsworth/Sumner junior Dawson Peterson. “You want to go out there at the end of the week and play a game against someone, and it’s really hard when you can’t.”
All season long, Ellsworth/Sumner has been breaking practice huddles with shouts of “Beat MDI.” Svec has stressed beating the Trojans as a major objective ever since becoming head coach, and his players are no less passionate about the goal.
“It’s been what we’ve been looking forward to all season long,” said Ellsworth/Sumner’s Camden Barker. “You obviously want to win every game, but this is the one that’s most important to us.”
MDI comes into tomorrow’s game fresh off one of its best performances of the year. In Saturday’s 30-28 road loss to Large-School North-leading Waterville (4-1), the Trojans (1-4) led most of the way before the Panthers stormed back for an overtime win.
The loss to Waterville was a tough one for an MDI team that had come agonizingly close to a season-defining victory. In the practices since the defeat, the Trojans have been aiming to channel the frustrations of losing a game they led by 14 in the fourth quarter.
“That one’s going to bother me for a while,” MDI junior Alex Gray said. “I think we’re going to have that in the front of our mind every play. When I hit somebody, that’ll be my motivation, for sure.”
Although MDI is currently on a three-game losing streak, Arnold believes his team is markedly better now than it was when it began that slide with a Sept. 24 loss at Stearns/Schenck. Following that 46-22 defeat, the Trojans made it their mission to use matchups against strong Camden Hills and Waterville teams as chances to build toughness.
“We really lost that Stearns game because their kids were tougher than we were,” Arnold said. “After that, we really challenged our kids. We said, ‘No matter what the scores of these next two games are, these are opponents that are going to make you tougher,’ and they did.”
The matchup, as Arnold noted, is likely to be the first of two consecutive games between the Eagles and Trojans. Should tomorrow’s winner finish fourth in the Large-School North rankings with the loser finishing fifth — an extremely probable scenario — the teams would meet again a postseason play-in game the following weekend.
Such frequent meetings could become regular occurrences for MDI and Ellsworth/Sumner should both teams stay in the eight-man ranks over the long term. The winner of tomorrow’s game, though, will forever be known as the first.
“The people before us never got the chance to have that rivalry that all the other sports get to have,” Barker said. “For us to get that, it’s definitely exciting.”