If a team hopes to beat Thornton Academy this fall, it might want to do so early.

When Thornton travels to Sanford for its season opener Friday night, it will have just three returning starters on offense and two on defense. None of the skill-position players are back in the position they played a year ago.

“We have some inexperience for sure,” said veteran coach Kevin Kezal, who has led Thornton to three of the past four Class A state championships, including the last two.

“It just feels like they reload rather than rebuild,” said Sanford Coach Mike Fallon. “He’s got that freight train rolling and it’s up to the rest of us to catch up.”

The consensus among coaches is Thornton and Bonny Eagle are the class of both Class A South and the state as a whole. A fourth consecutive meeting in the regional final is a strong possibility.

The Scots, who won the state title in 2013, return several players on both sides of the ball. They should be especially tough on defense with seven starters back, including all four linebackers.

“We don’t start too many seasons around here where contending is not one of our primary objectives,” said Bonny Eagle Coach Kevin Cooper. “That’s where we see ourselves.”

Cam Theberge of Bonny Eagle is tough to bring down, as are the Scots, who figure to present the biggest hurdle for Thornton.

Cam Theberge of Bonny Eagle is tough to bring down, as are the Scots, who figure to present the biggest hurdle for Thornton. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Cam Day made three starts for the Scots at quarterback last year and returns to run a spread offense that runs more than it passes. Cam Thebarge is a fast, elusive slotback, and power runner Nick Thorne (5-foot-9, 220 pounds) is a returning first-team Class A South pick at running back. On both sides of the ball, the team will look to two-year captain Parker Gammon, a senior center and inside linebacker.

In Saco, all eyes figure to be on Mike Laverriere, who will make the transition from inside power runner to his natural position of quarterback after the graduation of Austin McCrum (now at Lafayette). Laverriere’s transition will be eased by four stout linemen (center Nick Bartholomew, guard Andy St. Pierre, and 300-pound tackles Kyle Holman and Jack Webb) and 6-4 wide receiver Johnny Rosario, a transfer from Cambridge Rindge & Latin in Massachusetts.

“He’s a good player. He’s really good. We’re fortunate to get him,” Kezal said of Rosario.

Deering was the surprise second-place finisher in the South in 2015. Second-year coach Jason Jackson knows his Rams won’t sneak up on anyone, and will be competing with Scarborough, South Portland and Sanford to sort out the third through sixth playoff slots.

In the North, a two-time race is also expected between Windham and Portland, the reigning champ. Portland used a rock-solid defense, strong run game and good special teams to reach the state final for the first time since its 2002 title season. With four returnees in the backfield, Coach Jim Hartman expects to overcome the graduation of Fitzpatrick Trophy winner Joe Esposito.

“We’re better than we were last year but we have to be as mentally tough as we were last year,” Hartman said.

Desmond Leslie of Windham is one of the state's top returning quarterbacks, hoping to drive the Eagles to Class A North contention.

Desmond Leslie of Windham is one of the state’s top returning quarterbacks, hoping to drive the Eagles to Class A North contention. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

Windham has one of the state’s top returning quarterbacks in three-year starter Desmond Leslie, a presence at 6-2, 215 with good poise and field vision. The Eagles also have threats in running back Kyle Houser and wide receiver Griffin Hebert. But Windham may need time for its young players to mature, particularly on the lines.

“I feel really good about them,” Coach Matt Perkins said. “They’re so young we want to try to not get caught up in the big picture. If we improve as we have all summer, we can be a surprise.”

Edward Little and Cheverus are seen as the teams most likely to earn the third and fourth spots, which would secure home-field advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Cheverus will look familiar offensively, employing a tight formation and power running game as former assistant Mike Vance takes over for John Wolfgram as head coach.

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