BUCKSPORT — Standing at midfield to receive a punt, Gavin Billings sought the attention of his head coach on the sideline.
Billings, a three-year starter for the Bucksport football team, usually plies his trade on the offensive line as part of a unit that’s known for its size and physicality up front. Yet as he took on a much different role in the first half of Friday’s seven-on-seven game against Orono, the senior wanted a little bit of guidance before the snap.
“Coach,” Billing shouted in the direction of Bucksport head coach Joel Sankey, “I’ve never done this before!”
It’s a feeling all Bucksport players are experiencing as Maine’s new seven-on-seven season unfolds. With the state’s high schools unable to offer football in its traditional form this fall, the Golden Bucks are taking on a completely different version of the game under the Friday night lights.
Neither running plays nor tackling are permitted in seven-on-seven football, in which teams are instead confined to passing plays and downing opponents via two-hand touch. Although games are scored just as standard football games would be, there are also no offensive or defensive lines, blitz plays or punt returns.
Those changes mean a completely different style of play for Bucksport, which a year ago prided itself on a strong running game and dominance in the trenches en route to an undefeated regular season and Northern Maine championship. Players such as Billings who are normally going toe to toe with opposing linemen are instead learning to become pass-catchers and defensive backs.
“It’s definitely different, but it’s fun doing new things that you don’t always do,” Billings said. “I’d much rather be playing line and throwing blocks for our running backs, but it’s still a chance to play and try something new, and that’s better than nothing.”
Seven-on-seven play has also turned the week leading up to a game on its head. Game week during a typical season means extensive game planning, watching and breaking down film, team meals and meticulous game day preparations, none of which are pieces of the buildup to Friday nights this fall.
Football amidst a pandemic has also provided a stark contrast to the usual scene in Bucksport, a town known for a strong program and a lively atmosphere on game nights. Gone are the sights of fans in purple and gold lining the stadium hill, the cheers of hundreds after touchdowns and the roaring of sirens as the Bucksport Police Department guides the team toward Carmichael Field.
“It’s very strange,” Sankey said. “You’re used to seeing all those people out there cheering for you, and now you have a limited number of fans. It’s different, but at least the kids have a chance to play and compete. They’re still working hard and having fun.”
With a 2-0 record, Bucksport is adjusting well to the new format on the field. The Golden Bucks began their season Sept. 25 with a 13-12 road win over Belfast and notched another victory Friday with a 21-0 triumph over visiting Orono on Senior Night.
In Friday’s win, Bucksport got touchdown passes from three different quarterbacks (Ayden Maguire, Aiden Day and Logan Stanley) to three different receivers (Ty Giberson, Evan Trojano and Kam Webber) on offense. Defensively, the Golden Bucks notched six interceptions — not bad for a night on which scattered bits of heavy rain made the ball extra slick.
“We’ve got good athletes on both sides [of the ball],” Sankey said. “Our linemen played well in different spots than they’re used to, and I’m proud of them. Everybody played, and no one got hurt, and you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Even if seven-on-seven isn’t his players’ preferred code of the game, Sankey said the Golden Bucks have welcomed the chance to play football in any form. Knowing ever since the summer months that a fall without contact football was a strong possibility, the team has been fully on board with the alternative format.
“Back in July, we asked them, ‘There’s a chance, guys, that we’re not going to have football; would you still want to be doing this?’” Sankey said. “They all said, ‘Yeah, we want to,’ and they’ve enjoyed it and have really had a positive attitude about it.”
Although contact football can’t be played this fall, the Maine Principals’ Association has said it intends to offer the sport in early 2021. That would certainly be a welcome development for a Bucksport team hungry for another run following last year’s successful campaign.
Yet even as the Golden Bucks hold out hope that traditional football returns, the seven-on-seven Senior Night experience was no less emotional for Billings and fellow seniors Day, Stanley, Thomas Folckemer, Owen Gaudreau, Jacob Guty, Cameron Lawrence, Skylar MacNair, Jordan Malenfant and Colby Terry. With seniors’ parents in attendance, the margin of victory — 21 points for the Class of 2021 — was fitting.
“It’s definitely not what I pictured [Senior Night] would be when I came in freshman year, but it still has meaning,” Billings said. “We’re trying to take advantage of every game we have because we know it could be taken from us at any second. … It’s still a night we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives.”