HAMPDEN — Deprived of a chance to watch their team play one last game in its own stadium, the Bucksport faithful brought home-field advantage 20 miles north.
As the No. 1 seed in Class D North, the Bucksport football team was originally scheduled to play Friday night’s regional championship game against Dexter at Bucksport High School. Yet when snowy and icy conditions earlier in the week made the Carmichael Field grass unfit for play, the game was moved to Hampden Academy, where it could be played on artificial turf.
“We were definitely bummed about it,” Bucksport lineman David Gross said. “For us as seniors, we thought we were going to get one last game at Bucksport. It was a weird feeling when we found out [they moved it].”
Yet even without its hometown scenery in the background, Bucksport had as much crowd support as ever when it took the field to battle for the Northern Maine crown. Now, after capping off a dominant season of Little Ten Conference play with another win, the Golden Bucks stand just 48 minutes away from Maine high school football’s biggest prize.
Bucksport advanced to the state championship game with a 46-8 win over Dexter in Friday’s Class D North title game in Hampden. The win marked the first regional title in six years for the Golden Bucks, whose fan base will be traveling once again next weekend when it heads to Portland to see Bucksport play for the Gold Ball.
“We owe it all to these fans,” Bucksport senior Logan Stanley said. “They came up here and cheered their hearts out for us. … It felt just like a home game.”
Bucksport took a 6-0 lead early in the game through Jaxon Gross, whose 4-yard rushing touchdown on the opening possession capped off a nine-play, 62-yard drive. Yet the Dexter defense kept the top-ranked Golden Bucks (9-0) without a first down for the rest of the first quarter before recovering a Bucksport fumble early in the second to give the offense a red-zone opportunity.
Instead of capitalizing on the mistake, No. 2 Dexter (8-2) saw its newfound momentum evaporate two plays later as it coughed up a fumble of its own. Bucksport then made the score 12-0 with a long drive that culminated in a Gross touchdown run with 1:57 left in the half.
Bucksport quickly forced another timely turnover as Tyler Hallett took an interception to the Dexter 30-yard line with a minute remaining. Gross scored his third touchdown three plays later to give the Golden Bucks an 18-0 lead heading into halftime.
“That was a big play for us,” Bucksport head coach Joel Sankey said of the interception. “It’s always big when you can score right before halftime, and ending the half like we did certainly fired our kids up.”
Although Bucksport failed to take advantage after Dexter fumbled the kickoff to begin the second half, the Tigers gave the ball right back with another fumble, their fifth turnover of the game. The Golden Bucks then stretched their lead to 26-0 with a 15-yard pass from Brady Findlay to Stanley and a 2-point run from Gross.
Dexter ended Bucksport’s shutout bid with a 58-yard touchdown run and a 2-point conversion on the next drive. That proved to be the Tigers’ last notable play of the night, though, as the Golden Bucks responded with three consecutive touchdowns to turn the game into a full-blown rout.
The second of those touchdowns came with just over eight minutes remaining as Sankey dialed up a trick play. The play began with Findlay pitching the ball to Stanley, who then rolled out to pass and completed a deep ball to a wide-open Hallett to put the Golden Bucks up 38-8 and send players, coaches and fans into a frenzy.
“I’ve never heard it that loud,” Stanley said. “As soon as he caught it, I knew they weren’t going to catch him. Everybody was running around and going crazy.”
Whereas the last two Class D North title games ended with Bucksport players leaving the field dejected after losses to Foxcroft, this one ended in the Golden Bucks hoisting the regional championship plaque at midfield. The team then sprinted to the home-side bleachers to celebrate with its fans, none of whom wanted to miss this title celebration.
“We’ve always said we’re a family, and that means all of us,” David Gross said. “It means something more for us together as a team and as a community than it does for us individually.”
With the win, Bucksport finished its LTC slate 7-0 with five regular season wins and two playoff wins. The Golden Bucks outscored conference opponents 333-33, winning those contests an average of 42.9 points. Their closest conference victory was a 35-6 win over Mattanawcook Academy in Week 1.
To claim the Gold Ball, though, Bucksport must overcome one more hurdle: Class D South No. 2 Lisbon (7-3), which rolled to 48-21 and 25-15 wins over Oak Hill and Winthrop, respectively, en route to the Southern Maine title. The Golden Bucks and Greyhounds will meet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
Lisbon could very well present the stiffest challenge yet for a Bucksport team that struggled in its only Class D South game, a 21-14 win over Oak Hill on Oct. 11. Yet even as the Golden Bucks travel far from home, they’ll have no shortage of purple-clad fans behind them as they look to win their first state championship since 2004.
“We have great support,” Findlay said. “It feels great, but we have one more game to win. We want to do it for Bucksport.”
Update: This story has been updated to include the time of the Class D championship game between Bucksport and Lisbon.