Matt Perkins had a very simple message for his Windham High football players when they first gathered for practice on Aug. 16:
“Last year is over. Don’t try to be Jackson (Taylor, the all-state quarterback now at UMaine). Don’t try to be Jack (Mallis, the Fitzpatrick Trophy-winning running back). Just be you. Work hard and be coachable. You do those things, and we’ll have a chance.”

A chance to … repeat?

The Eagles enter the high school football season as the defending Class A state champions. In the last 15 years, only one Class A school has repeated as state champion. That was Bonny Eagle, which did it twice, winning in 2004 and 2005, then again in 2007 and 2008.

In Class B, where Leavitt High of Turner is the defending champion, it’s even tougher. Since 1990, only Winslow has successfully repeated. And, like Bonny Eagle, the Raiders have done it twice, first in 1992 and 1993, then in 2000 and 2001.

In Class C, defending champions have had a little more success. Both Boothbay (2001 and 2002) and Lisbon (2005 and 2006) have repeated in the last decade. Dirigo of Dixfield will attempt to do it this year.

“It’s a pretty tough feat, especially for a small school like Lisbon,” said Dick Mynahan, entering his 23rd year as coach of the Greyhounds. “We’ve had some really good teams, but injuries really hurt a small team. In 2006, we had some injuries early in the season, but those kids were back at the end of the season and we were healthy for the playoffs. That’s unusual. When it happens, you usually have success.”

The road to repeating begins Friday with the start of the regular season. And it’s not paved. Teams tend to gear up a little more for defending champs, play and hit a little harder. You need to stay healthy, you need to have a little luck, and you need a certain mentality among your players.

“In 1992, the kids enjoyed winning the state championship so much that we had 30 kids in the weight room the following Monday saying, ‘Let’s do it again,’ ” said Mike Siviski, entering his 26th year at Winslow. “There has to be a self-motivation, a self-preparedness, an intensity.”

“Any time you have success,” said Bonny Eagle’s Kevin Cooper, “there’s a tendency to think it’s just going to happen naturally. If you expect that, that’s where teams struggle to come back. You’ve got to rebuild your case, everyone has to know what you’re playing for.

“If you can rebuild the case to be state champs with the returning group, you have a shot.”

Perkins has made it clear to his Eagles that they have one simple goal: to be better each week.

“I think with high school kids, you’ve just got to break it down, you’ve got to look at the smaller pictures. ‘These are our strengths. These are our weaknesses,’ ” said Perkins. “The more you talk about last year, the more it’s in their minds. For us, last year is over. Let’s move on.”

His message has resonated with the Eagles.

“We’ve got to try to be better than last year,” said Nick Ramsdell, a returning lineman for Windham. “We’ve got to work harder. We’ve got to stick with it and go harder.””

And, he added, “We’ve got to go out and have fun. That’s real important.”

Cody Laberge, who will take over for Taylor at quarterback, said simply, “We just have to work harder. If it happens, it happens.”

Players like Ramsdell, an all-state selection last year, and Laberge, who started on defense, are essential to repeating. As juniors, they provided a push to the senior class, giving the Eagles an edge. Now they have to become leaders and produce.

“The one big factor in high school football is that, from year to year, teams turn over a lot,” said Bonny Eagle’s Cooper. “You don’t roll out as a championship team in August. This isn’t like the New Orleans Saints, who are coming back with almost their whole team. They’re a Super Bowl contender when they start in July.

“With high school football, you’ve lost all the kids you counted on. And a lot of the process (of repeating) is hard work, down and dirty grunt work that nobody sees. But if you don’t do it, you’re not going to be champion.”

The returning players saw that all the hard work paid off in a championship season. Now they have to take the lessons they learned from the graduated seniors and put them to use.

“Last year was a pretty special year, going undefeated and having the players we did,” said Jordan Hersom, a junior who will take over as Leavitt’s quarterback. “In our minds, it would be nice to go back and win it again. But, really, right now we’re just trying to become the best team that we can. We’re not trying to live up to the team we were last year.

“We’re just trying to become the best team we can be this year. It’s a long season, a long ways to go, and we have to stay focused week to week.”

John Wolfgram, now the coach at Cheverus, led South Portland to consecutive Class A titles in 1995 and 1996. He knows how difficult the task is.

“The big thing is that it’s tough to win a state championship, period,” he said. “The competition is just so hard. It’s not necessarily the thought of repeating, but just the idea of winning a championship. To get to that level two years in a row is very difficult.”

His South Portland teams had a group of players who were talented, motivated and dedicated.

“You don’t have that many opportunities to have the talent, the chemistry, and everything else come together,” he said. “You’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities when they’re there.”

Coaches have to gauge what their returning players are capable of handling. Rather than focusing on repeating, Dirigo Coach Doug Gilbert gave his team a new challenge.

“Every year our goal is to win one more game than the previous year,” said Gilbert, whose team was undefeated last year. “Well, we can’t do that this year. It’s now a different challenge and the kids have got to make their own mark.

“We’re not looking at the state championship right now. The goal is that this class of seniors can become the winningest class in Dixfield history if they win five games.”

Mike Hathaway, the coach at Leavitt, thought about printing up t-shirts with a big red target on the back but decided against it.

“That goes against our general philosophy,” he said. “If we’re focusing on other teams, that takes away from our preparation.”

And Hathaway hasn’t changed the team’s goal.

“Our goal is to win the last four football games of the season, three in the playoffs, then the state championship,” he said. “We don’t focus on comparisons, we’re going to build a philosophy on what we have. There’s not a kid in our locker room who would settle for anything less. There were a lot of underclassmen who played a role in that championship last year. We’ve taken those guys in and told them it’s their turn to be leaders.

“Our goal is to repeat. If we don’t, we’ll be a little disappointed.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]