SCARBOROUGH — Scarborough High’s football team took a huge step forward when it beat Thornton Academy for the first time in last year’s Class A South semifinals.

The thrilling 36-29 victory, with the winning points coming with 59 seconds to play, stopped a 15-game losing streak to the Saco powerhouse.

Now comes an even tougher challenge for a veteran Scarborough team – to take the next step and win the region.

The Red Storm will be one of the teams to watch this fall as the Maine high school football season gets under way Friday night.

“We look at each other as we’re a lot better than last year, and we’ve got a lot more seniors and we have one year of experience under our belts,” said senior quarterback Zoltan Panyi. “We still come out here and we work hard, but we know we’re better, definitely.”

Thornton will still be a force to reckon with, but defending state champion Bonny Eagle represents Scarborough’s next hurdle.

Keyed by big plays, the Scots beat Scarborough twice last season, 21-7 at Scarborough in Week 2 and 40-20 in the regional final. Bonny Eagle went on to beat Portland and win its sixth Class A title under Coach Kevin Cooper.

As a result, no one wearing Scarborough red is underselling the Scots, least of all Coach Lance Johnson.

Johnson quickly rattled off a laundry list of Bonny Eagle’s strengths: a veteran front seven on defense, experienced safeties, the running back combination of Nick Thorne and Alex Sprague, top receiver Kordell Menard and new quarterback Connor Sirois.

But Scarborough has just as many veterans, including Panyi, the top returning quarterback in Class A. Nine starters are back on offense and six on defense, with quality depth at all positions.

Senior Owen Garrard should be a Fitzpatrick Trophy candidate. He rushed for 1,056 yards and 18 touchdowns, and is one of the top linebackers in the league. Panyi will have a host of receivers, including returners Cody Dudley and Connor Kelly – back from a knee injury – and two good tight ends in Reece Lagerquist and Eric Quirk. Senior Jaquan Seme and sophomore Jarett Flaker, the state 55-meter indoor sprint champion as a freshman, are playmakers who will add to the mix.

The offensive line returns four of the five starters, including 6-foot-7 tackle Anthony Griffin.

“Those hoggies, the linemen up front, are great this year. They’re really a special group,” Garrard said.

“Oh, they’re very good,” Bonny Eagle’s Cooper said of Scarborough. “They’ve got skill guys all over the place and a veteran offensive line. That’s a pretty good mix for being a great team.”

Bonny Eagle hosts Scarborough in the regular-season finale Oct. 20.

Oxford Hills/Buckfield

When Mark Soehren took over the Oxford Hills program in 2012, it was at a low point. Gradually the Vikings have been creating an identity as a tough, physical team.

Last season they went 4-4 and won the school’s first home playoff game at Gouin Field – which was opened in the early 2000s – beating Edward Little in overtime.

“That was a big step, so now we’re talking about, can we get up high enough to get a bye, or two home games?” Soehren said.

The return of 1,000-yard rusher Dawson Stevens and a veteran offensive line led by three-year starting center Jarrod Taylor is a good starting point. At quarterback, 6-5 junior Colton Carson takes over, and Soehren expects to throw the ball more.

“To beat some of these other teams that we haven’t been able to get by, like Cheverus, Portland and Windham, we will have to throw, but our game plan every day is to be as physical as we possibly can,” Soehren said.

Taylor and improving 6-5, 270-pound junior tackle Austin Doughty lead the offensive line. Linebackers Jordan Silver, Jason Paradis and junior Parker LaFrance set the tone on defense.

Can the Vikings unseat Portland as the Class A North champion? The teams meet in the season opener at Fitzpatrick Stadium on Saturday.

Portland

When you’ve played in two straight state title games, there isn’t much room for improvement. And there are whispers, after a tough scrimmage against Scarborough, that the Bulldogs are in trouble because of a thin roster.

“We’re at about 40 players, including freshmen. That’s where we’ve been the last three, four years,” said Portland Coach Jim Hartman. “When you’ve won two straight conference championships, everyone is trying to knock us down.”

Portland is still the consensus pick among coaches to win the North. But the gap between the Bulldogs and the rest of the league has closed.

Senior Vinnie Pasquali, who excelled as a defensive back and return man, will take over at quarterback. Pasquali has not played the position before, which could limit the involvement of sure-handed receiver Griffin Foley.

Portland’s strength will be up front, where it returns three starters in senior two-way tackle Charlie Egeland (6-3, 285) and juniors Koa Farnsworth and Ben Levine, who played guard and defensive end at 155 pounds last season and is moving to inside linebacker this year.

Expect Zack Elowitch, a junior, to step into the lead running back role. Quinn Clarke gives the Bulldogs an experienced kicker.

Messalonskee

The Eagles have the best returning running back in Class B North in Austin Pelletier, a fullback who gained 1,370 yards and scored 24 touchdowns in a 5-5 season. Coach Brad Bishop also has senior halfbacks Alden Balboni and Tyler Lewis to offer complementary options.

The lines are inexperienced and there are holes to fill. Only five starters are back on offense and four on defense.

So why should the Eagles improve? Partly because Brunswick, the defending state champion, has even fewer returning starters – just two on both sides. Plus, Brewer graduated all of its backs and linebackers, along with Gaziano Defensive Lineman of the Year Austin Lufkin, the 2017 Varsity Maine Male Athlete of the Year. So the door is open for a new North champ.

Messalonskee can state its case quickly. It opens at Brunswick and then hosts defending Class B South champ Kennebunk in Week 2.

Kennebunk

The Rams appear to be a lot like Scarborough: a team that exceeded expectations last fall and brings back a ton of talent.

Kennebunk flew under the radar for much of 2016, and its weak early season schedule was viewed as suspect. All the Rams did was go 11-0 until falling to Brunswick 28-6 in the Class B state final.

In his 39th year at the helm, Joe Rafferty has nine starters back on both sides of the ball and a very good chance to win the school’s first state title since 1991. The Rams return a dual threat in junior quarterback Tripp Bush and senior running back Jake Littlefield, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 11 TDs. Four interior linemen also return on offense. Junior wide receiver Zack Sullivan figures to be more involved now that Bush has a year’s experience.

A year ago, defense was the Rams’ strength, tough against the run and able to create turnovers.

“We could be a little better defensively,” Rafferty said. “We played a lot of sophomores.”

Leavitt

The Hornets have been on a reclassification yo-yo over the past decade and have shown they can win in both Class B (2009 state champ, runner-up in 2010 and 2011) and Class C (2013 state champ, 2014 runner-up). After a two-year return to Class B with 6-3 and 2-7 records, they move to Class C South this fall.

Coach Mike Hathaway says his team is still relatively young, but it returns five starting linemen, including the Parmenter brothers – 6-4, 270-pound senior Aidan at left tackle and 6-1, 230-pound sophomore Riley at left guard. Senior quarterback Tim Albert is also a returning starter. He has a dangerous game-breaking target in Caleb Brown, as well as two big tight ends.

With former Class B teams York, Gardiner and Morse also moving to Class C South, the 10-team division appears to be the most balanced in the state. But with eight starters back on both sides of the ball, Leavitt consistently emerged among the coaches as one of the very best in the division.

Madison/Carrabec

Madison/Carrabec was in Class C North last fall, compiling a 7-1 regular-season record. Now the Bulldogs are in Class D, and to balance the divisions, were placed in the South.

“Sometimes there’s a misconception that when you drop down you’re going to win the conference,” said Madison Coach Scott Franzose, a former quarterback at the school. “This is really one of the most competitive conferences in the state. You look at Oak Hill and what they’ve done (Class D state champs from 2013-15), and now a team like Wells is there. There’s really no weak sauce.”

Wells, the 2016 Class C champion, is the coaches’ favorite despite significant graduation losses. Madison is in the serious contender category, though. With so many new matchups in the division, there could be an adjustment period.

The Bulldogs’ offense features a fast-paced attack. Returning starters include QB Evan Bess (1,084 passing yards, 576 rushing) and running backs Sean Whalen (737 rushing yards, 291 receiving) and Eric Wescott, working behind a line led by Max Shibley. Franzose calls his linemen fast, physical and smart, and probably the best group he’s had in six years at the helm.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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