ELLSWORTH — The Ellsworth-Sumner football team began its season with one simple goal: to win a game.
After 25 straight losses, the Eagles went on to win five this fall.
On Friday, Ellsworth-Sumner (5-3) celebrated Senior Night with a 30-16 victory over Dexter (3-5), capping off a historic season in the team’s four years as a varsity program.
“Those seniors have left a legacy,” Ellsworth-Sumner coach Duane Crawford said. “They can take pride in having established a program that we will continue to build on.”
Crawford started this season how he always does: “cautiously optimistic.”
“Obviously, we think we can win every game — that’s why we coach,” Crawford said. “Realistically, that may not have been the case the first few years.”
From 2012-2014, Crawford and his assistant coaches focused on the subtle bright spots in the many blowout losses: those games the Eagles led briefly in the first quarter or remained competitive enough to not face their opponent’s junior varsity squad in the second half.
“You just had to find any little thing to hang your hat on,” Crawford said. “Not everyone could see the gradual improvement over three varsity seasons, but the coaching staff could.
“The kids believed as well, and it all paid off.”
Most of the factors — such as the team’s offense and Class D matchups — remained consistent with the previous years.
Crawford attributes some of this season’s success to proper conditioning and minimal injuries, which allowed his team to sustain its 29-player roster from start to finish. However, he gives the majority of credit to his seniors: Devin Wright, Connor Petros, Wally Moon, Tyler Hardwick, Austin Smith, Ed Sadler and Chris Dejulio.
“We had a good senior class — our biggest so far,” Crawford said, comparing this year’s seven seniors to last year’s three. “They learned how to work together and be leaders.”
Without them, Crawford said sustaining a team during those first years as a new program would have been difficult, if not impossible.
“Some of those kids have played for four years and have been beaten down,” Crawford said. “It would have been easy for all of them to say, ‘I don’t want to play football anymore, we just go out and get beat every week.’”
That elusive first win happened Sept. 11 when Ellsworth-Sumner beat Washington Academy 22-8 on the road. The usually reserved Eagles rushed the field after the game, cheering and exchanging hugs. Crawford received his first Gatorade shower that night.
“That first win definitely boosted morale,” Crawford said. “I’d see that bounce in the kids’ step when they were coming onto the field. They started to believe in themselves.”
Equipped with new confidence, Ellsworth-Sumner continued to win games, including over Stearns 42-6 and Houlton 28-14. One of those wins was a forfeit by Camden Hills, which suspended its season the week before its scheduled game with the Eagles.
“That was unfortunate,” Crawford said. “I think we would have won, and having that week off was hard.”
Ellsworth-Sumner lost its next game 46-0 to the Class C North’s No. 2-ranked Mattanawcook — which Crawford said would have likely been a closer matchup had the Eagles not gone two weeks without playing a game.
“With the exception of Mattanawcook, we were in every game,” Crawford said. “Our defense kept the score close. Offensively, we have one of the best, if not the best, running back in the league.”
Wright, a senior fullback, rushed for more than 1,500 yards and scored 17 touchdowns this season.
“He’s a special athlete,” Crawford said, also recognizing the offensive line that made those statistics possible. “It will be hard to find someone to fill his shoes.”
Crawford expects eight incoming freshmen to join his squad next year, including his son. But he is hoping for 10 or so more.
“We should even out the senior loss as far as numbers are concerned,” Crawford said. “But we need 40 or so players to be competitive.”
Ellsworth-Sumner will compete in the Little Ten Conference with the smallest-sized schools for one more season — an extended grace period approved by the Maine Principals Association last year.
If this arrangement did not make Ellsworth-Sumner ineligible for the playoffs, the Eagles would have replaced Dexter as the Class D North’s No. 5 seed.
Crawford said Ellsworth’s enrollment — without including Sumner’s — would likely put the team in Class C on the same stage as powerhouse teams such as Old Town, Winslow and Mount Desert Island.
“We’re still young and relatively inexperienced,” Crawford said. “You don’t want to go 5-3 one season and 0-8 the next. That would move the program back.”
As Crawford has said repeatedly, building a program takes time.
“It took three really long years of trying to get this program off the ground,” Crawford said. “I can’t say enough good things about the kids who stuck with it.”
Ellsworth-Sumner 30, Dexter 16
Ellsworth-Sumner held Dexter to one first-half touchdown and a second late in the fourth quarter after the Eagles had already put the game away on Friday.
Wally Moon and Keith Jordan led Ellsworth-Sumner with nine tackles each. Austin Smith contributed eight, and Tyler Hardwick and Ed Sadler each chipped in with seven. Smith and Damien Carter also each had a fumble recovery, and Chris Fickett had an interception.
Offensively, the line cleared the way for Devin Wright to rush for 351 yards and five touchdowns on 41 carries. Jordan, Carter, Sadler, Smith, Moon, Isaiah Cutshall and Ethan Kane neutralized the eight or nine players Dexter was stacking in the box to give Wright running room.
MCI 35, Bucksport 13
Bucksport ended its season 3-5 in a loss to undefeated Maine Central Institute on Friday.
MCI enters the postseason ranked No. 1 in the Class D North standings.
Old Town 31, MDI 8
Old Town continued its undefeated streak on Friday with a win over the Class C North’s No. 3-ranked Mount Desert Island.
MDI (6-2) will play No. 6 Oceanside (4-4) in the quarterfinals. No. 1 Old Town earned a bye and will play next in the semifinals.