BAR HARBOR — A new era of Mount Desert Island football last season saw some early growing pains. The way the Trojans ended the year, though, is still energizing them more than 10 months later.
One year removed from their second consecutive No. 1 playoff seed and Northern Maine title game, the Trojans had their hands full entering 2018 as they had to replace one of their largest and most accomplished senior classes along with a legendary head coach. With a tough schedule that included four straight contests against the top-four teams in the conference, MDI lost five of its first six games.
Then, in MDI’s Week 7 game against John Bapst, things clicked for the Trojans with the offense bulldozing the Crusaders on the ground and the defense recording three interceptions in a 52-8 win. MDI was just as dominant the following week, holding Belfast to negative rushing yards and using a balanced effort on offense to win 56-14.
The Belfast game proved to be MDI’s last of the season as the Trojans finished mere percentage points short of the last Class C North playoff spot in the Heals. Yet after enduring a series of tough early losses, the players haven’t forgotten the feeling of finishing the year with a pair of blowout victories.
“That energy [from those games] has carried over to this season,” junior Baylor Landsman said. “Those of us who came back, we know what we can do when we come together as a team because of what we dug deep and did at the end of last year.”
MDI began last season with a new head coach, Mark Arnold, following Mark Shields’ decision to step down from the post in January. Shields’ retirement coincided with the departure of the 2018 graduating class, whose 18-4 record over its final two seasons included a Northern Maine championship win in 2016 and a regional runner-up finish the following year.
Last season’s Trojans did have several seniors to whom they could turn, including Gilbert Isaacs, who would be named Big 11 Conference Lineman of the Year, and Elijah Joyce, who led the conference in rushing. Yet with freshmen and sophomores comprising 20 of the 33 players on MDI’s roster, the Trojans were still a relatively young squad that had to adapt quickly to the varsity environment.
“A lot of us sophomores last year didn’t have that confidence at the start because we weren’t used to going out there, getting hit and having to get back up,” Landsman said. “Later on last year and now coming in this year, that confidence is there for us because we know how to deal with that.”
Despite the 1-5 start, MDI showed flashes of potential all season; the offense scored 30 points in the team’s Week 1 loss to Oceanside, and the defense shut out Hampden Academy a week later before holding its own against powerhouses Maine Central Institute and Winslow. Even after defeats to Hermon in Week 5 and Nokomis in Week 6, the Trojans felt close to a breakthrough.
“We were working hard and really wanting to win, and we knew we were getting better even though we were losing to good teams,” junior Hunter Gray said. “At the end of the season, we found where we were supposed to be, and I think that’s stayed with us.”
Gray, an honorable mention All-Big 11 selection who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year, is one of MDI’s top choices to take over the top spot at running back, though Aiden Grant, Ethan Harkins and Sam Mitchell will also contribute at the position. Landsman, who shined against Oceanside and Belfast, is back at quarterback, and Porter Isaacs, another All-Big 11 honorable mention recipient, will anchor the offensive line.
Given the loss of Joyce at running back and linebacker and the standout play of Gilbert Isaacs, Adam Burdzel and Sam Hoff in the trenches, MDI will still have work to do to replicate some of last year’s production. Fortunately, with a roster of 37 healthy players and record turnouts at summer practices and workouts, the team has taken significant steps in finding athletes who can do so.
“This is a lot more [players] than we usually have,” Gray said. “Usually, we have about 20 guys at the beginning of the season, but we have a lot of kids who have stayed all summer, and it’s really good to see that.”
Those numbers bode well for football’s future at MDI, which has been able to split into varsity and junior varsity units in practices. The program contemplated a move to the new eight-man class in the offseason, but with a freshman class of 14 players and solid numbers at the sophomore and junior levels, Arnold is feeling comfortable with the Trojans’ decision to stay in Class C.
“We’ve gotten a couple of new upperclassmen who can make an impact in terms of our varsity team, but it’s really our incoming freshman class and a couple of kids in our sophomore class that’s given us a nice influx in numbers,” Arnold said. “Not only are we going to play 11-man varsity this year, but we’re hoping we’ve got enough kids to keep that going in the future.”
MDI’s first game will be at home against Stearns/Schenck at 7 p.m. next Friday, Sept. 6. Ahead of that contest, the Trojans held a jamboree play day against Belfast, Orono and Washington Academy on Monday and will host Hampden Academy in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. tonight, Aug. 30.
So far, Arnold has liked what he’s seen on the field.
“I’m really happy with where we’re at right now,” Arnold said. “The kids have been learning a lot, and even though we lost some guys, I’m hoping that the way we ended last year is going to give them a boost.”
Orono cancels varsity football season
MDI and Bucksport had their 2019 football schedules thrown for a loop Wednesday as Orono elected to forego its entire varsity season.
Orono, which has battled low numbers in recent years, has 18 players on its roster and dressed just 15 for Saturday’s scrimmage against Washington Academy, according to the Bangor Daily News. The school will play a JV schedule this year in lieu of its previous slate of opponents.
“We apologize for the inconvenience that this creates for our 2019 opponents,” Orono Athletic Director Mike Archer said in a press release. “I will work with Big East Commissioner Bunky Dow to assist in filling the void with other opponents due to the void we have created in their schedules.”
Following the announcement, MDI filled its newly vacant Sept. 20 slot by moving its originally scheduled opener at Old Town to 7 p.m. that evening. The Trojans will now open the season next Friday against their former Week 4 opponent, Stearns/Schenck, and host a new opponent, Dexter, on Sept. 27.
As of Friday afternoon, Bucksport had not specified whether it would attempt to find a new opponent or reduce its schedule to seven games. The Golden Bucks were scheduled to travel to Orono on Oct. 18.