SACO – After the game, they took a knee in the shadows of the goal posts and watched their football coach approach from the center of the field. At about the 20-yard line, they could sense Greg Stilphen’s vibe. What’s more, they could see it.

A voice sang out, drawing attention to the obvious: Look at that smile!

Stilphen didn’t dim the wattage. He didn’t launch into the usual cautionary tale, that Deering High’s 35-6 victory over Thornton Academy was just one big game with more to follow, maybe stretching deep into November’s playoffs. He wanted his players to feel the satisfaction of winning.

He pushed them hard in the practice week. So hard, he told his team, he questioned if he was too hard. His players smiled back. If Saturday’s performance was their reward, they’d pay Stilphen’s price.

Stilphen had explained the stakes and reminded them of their situation, talking to his team as young men, not boys. Thornton Academy was unbeaten, Deering had lost once and badly to Bonny Eagle.

Saturday was Thornton Academy’s sun-kissed Homecoming. Big crowd. Big expectations.

Inside the school’s atrium two hours before kickoff, the newest class was inducted into the Thornton sports hall of fame. Art Leveris Jr., one of Maine’s best schoolboy running backs and the 1992 Fitzpatrick Award winner, was among the inductees. He had led his team onto the field at Hill Stadium against rival Biddeford for the Western Maine title back then. The prize was a spot in the state final.

The game was a classic, ending in overtime. Leveris, the target of the Biddeford defense, picked himself off the soft grass again and again. Some may say it was his finest performance. Saturday, he didn’t or wouldn’t remember his yardage or how many touchdowns he scored.

“It wasn’t about the individual statistics,” said Leveris. “It was about my teammates.” Thornton lost that afternoon.

Leveris, his Naval Academy ring prominent, was asked to speak to this year’s team. Many in the locker room were not born when he played. Leveris, a director of operations for Exel Logistics in Massachusetts, did his best to connect.

It’s amazing, he said afterward, how much he took from football and applied to his job. How bumps in life are springs in the road.

Kevin Kezal’s team did have a challenge. Some high school fans believe Thornton Academy, although unbeaten, plays a weaker schedule. Think SEC fans disparaging Big East football. Saturday was Thornton’s opportunity to earn respect.

The problem? Stilphen was sounding the respect theme with his players and doing a very good job.

“We had a chip on our shoulder, no doubt about it,” said Will Richards, a senior lineman. “We had something to prove.”

They didn’t have a Leveris to speak before the game, so they spoke among themselves. A few words, a little body language. “It was a statement game,” said Jamie Ross, the senior quarterback.

“We wanted to be talked about and you only get into the conversation by winning,” said Stilphen, unknowingly explaining Leveris’ reticence in talking about that long-ago loss to Biddeford.

Want attention? Want to be heard? Win the football games and particularly those that matter more. That’s true on a field in Saco, Orono or Foxborough.

“Bonny Eagle humbled us,” said Stilphen. “Nobody was looking at us and these kids deserve to be looked at.”

Alex Stilphen, a junior lineman, stood next to Richards. Their chests were out, but it appeared they could still get their heads into their helmets.

“We had respect for (Thornton),” said Alex Stilphen. “We knew they were good. We weren’t sure how good.”

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com