KENNEBUNK – Like every high school football coach, Joe Rafferty brings his players together at the start of preseason practice and talks about goals for the upcoming season.

He has been coaching Kennebunk High for 35 years so he has the speech down pat. The only problem, he said, was whether his players believed him.

“To be quite honest with you,” he said, “I could stand in front of my team for the last 10 years and we could say, mention the word ‘gold’ (as in Gold Ball championship), and I think that they had a tough time believing that was, in fact, a reality.”

For the last 10 years, Kennebunk played in Class A. Its record in that time was 30-53, including one winning season and three playoff appearances. When the Rams went 5-4 last fall, it was their first winning season since 2001, two years before they moved up to Class A from B.

After the Maine Principals’ Association reclassified football into four classes based on enrollment last spring, Kennebunk became one of several schools that moved down. The Rams will play in Western Class B with Gorham and Mt. Ararat of Topsham — two former Class A schools.

Playing in Class B, among schools with similar enrollments, already has provided a lift.

“These guys, they’ve stepped forward the very first day and said they’re interested in winning a Gold Ball,” said Rafferty. “I haven’t heard them talk like that in the last 10 years.”

Rafferty and his players know playing in Class B won’t be an instant cure-all for the program, that the games won’t be easier simply because the schools are smaller. But playing in Class B has been a boon for schools that recently moved down.

Westbrook, for instance, has qualified for the playoffs two years in a row in Class B after years of floundering in Class A. Marshwood advanced to the Class B state championship game last fall in its second Class B season.

“That was a huge boost to both those programs,” said Rafferty.

Jeff Guerette, the Westbrook coach, said playing in Class B has infused the program with hope.

“It’s kind of given the kids more confidence when they’re playing schools with similar- sized enrollments,” he said. “We feel we have a chance to be competitive week in, week out. And that’s exciting for the kids.

“And then when we won a few games, that generated some excitement in the community and in school, which was really big for us.”

Guerette said while the Blazes were competitive with some Class A schools, they were simply overmatched by others. “In Class B, there are still some teams that are better than us but there’s not that huge gap like there was in Class A,” he said.

Frank True, the third-year coach at Mt. Ararat, hopes for similar results. The Eagles haven’t had a winning season (6-3) since 2002 — their last year in Class B before moving up to Class A. Their record the last 10 years has been 16-67 with one playoff appearance and three head coaches.

True said if the MPA hadn’t reclassified football, the Eagles (0-26 the last three seasons) would have petitioned down anyway.

“We’re hoping to be competitive,” he said. “We’d like to win a few games as well, but we’re just looking for competitive games. Four quarters of good football would be good for everybody.”

Kennebunk has played in A, B and C over the years. This is the first time the Rams have dropped down.

“The biggest thing,” said Rafferty, “is that it gives the kids, as well as the coaches, a little more confidence in what they’re doing.”

Depth is a huge key, he said. When Kennebunk would suffer an injury while in Class A, the difference between the Rams’ second-team player and one from the larger schools, like Bonny Eagle or Thornton Academy, was sometimes staggering.

“Here everybody is in the same boat,” he said.

The new schedule reunites Kennebunk with York, Fryeburg Academy and Marshwood — three former foes in the long-ago Southern York League. But the rest of the schedule is against mostly new opponents, like Oceanside, Greely and Falmouth.

Rafferty is making sure his players realize that nothing will come easily.

“I’ve also felt there were some B schools that could play with anybody,” he said.

Senior running back Nicco DeLorenzo doesn’t want anyone to get caught up in the stigma of letters.

“Class B I don’t think it means we’re any less of a football team,” he said.

Ben Bath, a senior two-way lineman, said, “To us it’s all about going out and competing, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing.”

Any success the Rams have will be built on the momentum of last year’s 5-3 mark. “We’ve got almost everyone back,” said senior running back Tyler Elkington. “The excitement is something I haven’t seen since I’ve been here.

“The excitement, the enthusiasm, the work ethic I’ve seen here in camp is off the charts.”

DeLorenzo is ready to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.

“I think my team is full of winners,” he said. “We’ve been playing together for, like, forever. We’re ready to go. We’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time.”

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

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH