ELLSWORTH — If this wasn’t football, Jim Hartman doesn’t know what is.
Hartman, back for his second stint with the Yarmouth Clippers after seven seasons at Portland, has patrolled the sidelines at many high school football fields throughout the state during his 13 years as a head coach. Doing so in the Clippers’ first-ever eight-man game Friday night at Ellsworth’s Tug White Stadium was a new experience, but for Hartman, it was football all the same.
“Did that not feel like football?” Hartman asked after his team’s season-opening win over Ellsworth/Sumner. “We passed the ball, and we ran the ball; they hit us hard, and we hit them hard back. It was great football.”
Indeed, this game between Ellsworth/Sumner and Yarmouth was filled with the hard hits, big plays, community camaraderie and general excitement that have long made high school football an American tradition. Whereas those things mattered to the players, coaches and fans present, the number of players on the field did not.
Yarmouth outlasted Ellsworth/Sumner 20-14 on Friday in a game that marked the start of the inaugural season of eight-man football for both programs. The game gave everyone in attendance a taste of what eight-man football is all about, and for both coaches, the initial response was overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s the same thing,” Ellsworth/Sumner head coach Duane Crawford said. “The fundamentals, the rules, the feeling of the game, none of those things are different.”
As one of the first games played in the new eight-man classification’s large-school division, this encounter was a much-anticipated one from the very beginning. Ellsworth/Sumner fans packed the stadium hill from top to bottom to catch a glimpse of the action, and Yarmouth had a strong contingency of its own with plenty of fans in navy blue making the 150-mile trip.
Some of those fans had yet to settle in when Ellsworth/Sumner senior J’Von James took the opening kickoff to the house for the Eagles’ first-ever eight-man touchdown. Even with less room with which to work than usual — eight-man fields are 40 yards wide rather than 53 1/3 — there was no stopping James on his way to the end zone.
“He’s pretty elusive,” Crawford said of James, a transfer student from Central High School in Springfield, Mass. “I don’t think a lot of teams are going to be kicking off to him this year.”
Yarmouth (1-0) tied the game with 4 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run and took a 14-6 lead early in the second following a touchdown pass on 4th and 20. The Eagles responded by tying the game at 14 early in the second half with a 3-yard run from Connor Crawford and a diving catch from James on the 2-point conversion.
Yet Yarmouth took back the lead on a touchdown later in the third quarter, and the Clippers would never relinquish it. Ellsworth/Sumner (0-1) neared the red zone twice in the fourth, but the visitors stood tall on defense on both occasions to preserve the victory.
Ellsworth/Sumner entered the game with a roster size of 14, the smallest in the entire state. Bringing such a squad into an 11-man game a year ago would’ve been borderline unmanageable, but the introduction of eight-man, which was approved earlier this year to address declining participation statewide, allowed the Eagles to stay competitive against a Yarmouth team with twice as many players.
“We’re very thin, and we’re still working some kids in because there are a couple who have only been with us for two weeks,” Duane Crawford said. “It’s Ironman football for us right now, but our kids really went out there and worked hard.”
If there’s one notable difference between the eight-man and 11-man codes, Hartman said, it’s the number of gaps along the offensive line. Yet that difference did nothing to change the intensity or overall atmosphere of Friday’s game.
“We’re still smacking pads, still blitzing and still throwing the ball,” Hartman said. “There are some plays we can run in 11-man — some powers, some counters — that we can’t run here, but there’s no difference in the football.”
The Eagles will play another home game at 6 p.m. next Friday, Sept. 13, when they face Gray-New Gloucester (0-1). Gray-New Gloucester opened the season Friday night with a 56-28 loss to Ellsworth/Sumner’s Week 3 opponent, Mount Ararat.
Ellsworth/Sumner will get another crack at Yarmouth when it faces the Clippers on Oct. 18 at Yarmouth High School. Both teams have a lot of work to do before then, but when the time comes, Hartman expects the Eagles to provide another stern test.
“You could put as many kids as you want on the field, but the bottom line is their kids played their asses off,” Hartman said. “That’s what the game is all about.”
Golden Bucks, Trojans earn Week 1 wins
Bucksport and Mount Desert Island enjoyed strong starts to their 2019 football seasons Friday night with decisive victories in their respective Week 1 contests.
In Lincoln, Bucksport (1-0) scored three first-half touchdowns against Mattanawcook Academy (0-1) to take a 19-0 lead into the break. The Golden Bucks added two more scores in the second half and kept the Mattanawcook offense from making any significant breakthroughs to earn a 35-6 win in a rematch of the 2017 and 2018 Class D North semifinal matchups between the two teams.
MDI got off to a slow start at home against Stearns/Schenck (0-1) by conceding a touchdown on the opening kickoff, but the Trojans (1-0) scored the next five touchdowns to take control of the game en route to a 51-28 victory. Mark Arnold’s team had 455 yards of total offense in the win.
“We didn’t want to start the football game that way, that’s for sure, but you sometimes have those moments early in the season where you make those errors on special teams,” Arnold said. “I was happy that our kids came out, believed in themselves and turned it right around.”
Bucksport will play its first home game of the season next Friday when it faces Dexter (1-0) at 7 p.m. MDI will be back in action at the same time as it hosts Maine Central Institute (1-0).