GORHAM — The Windham High football team believes it is a completely different group now compared to the first time it played Scarborough.

The Eagles have to believe. Because the alternative is not pretty.

The first time the teams met, in the sixth game of the regular season, visiting Scarborough rolled to a 66-7 victory.

Windham also lost the next week, 21-13 against then-unbeaten Edward Little, falling to 3-4. Key players were hurt, other starters left the team for unspecified reasons, and many of the remaining Eagles were being shifted into new positions.

But …

“After that loss to (Edward Little), they were then 7-0 and we only lost by eight points,” said senior Nathan Watson, a linebacker who shifted from running back to tight end. “We looked at ourselves and said, ‘We believe. We have a chance to go all the way.’ ”

Four wins later, including a North semifinal takedown of top-seeded Edward Little and a 42-6 regional final thumping of Portland, Watson has been proven correct.

Windham (7-4) will have gone all the way if it can beat none other than Scarborough (9-1) in the Class A state championship game Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

“We really feel that we have a good chance because we’re not even close to the team we used to be,” Watson said. “They don’t know what we are now. They know what we used to be and that’s in the past.”

One important, positive constant throughout the season for Windham has been the leadership and strong all-around play of quarterback/strong safety Tanner Bernier, who hasn’t missed a game.

But it wasn’t until the final regular-season game, a win against Bangor, that Coach Matt Perkins felt like his best player was really recovered from a high-ankle sprain suffered in the first game of the season.

“Bernier was basically on one leg (against Scarborough). He was still hobbling around,” Perkins said.

A big part of Windham’s offense is the quarterback read-option, but through 10 games, Bernier had only 57 carries for 403 yards.

“When the (quarterback) is not running it, all of a sudden you’re not so effective. The cat’s out of the bag on who you’re giving it to,” Perkins said.

And, with running back Stuart Salom out with an injury – he’s now back – guessing where the ball was going was even easier.

Against Portland, Salom was back in action and Bernier was released. On Windham’s opening possession, three straight Bernier runs covered all 79 yards needed for a touchdown, and the rout was on.

He finished with 166 rushing yards and threw for a TD to Watson just before halftime.

“At this point in the season, I’m going to run my heart out for this team,” Bernier said. “And that first half, the holes were huge and the linemen did a great job, and that’s all you can ask for.”

From his strong safety spot, Bernier leads an otherwise youthful and inexperienced secondary, a unit directly impacted by the midseason changes.

“There were a lot of injuries and some stuff that happened off the field, and some players are off the team now and that’s kind of where that (season) ended and our new season began,” Bernier said. “We just kept getting better and better with what we had. Some kids have stepped up in some major ways, and it’s awesome.”

Bernier has long been ready to step into new roles and step up for Windham.

After a freshman season spent as a sub-varsity quarterback, he was thrust into a starting varsity spot at free safety because of injuries. Then, as a junior, he was asked by Perkins to switch to defensive end.

Going into this season, Perkins came to Bernier again. Desmond Leslie, a three-year starting quarterback, had graduated and the expected replacement moved to Texas.

“(Perkins) came to me and said, ‘I need you to play (quarterback),’ and I said, ‘of course, on one condition. I need to play defense,’ ” Bernier said.

It’s on defense where Bernier is at his best. He has a knack for making big plays – five forced fumbles and an interception –and is the unit’s unquestioned leader.

“He’s just such a great leadership guy back there at defensive back,” said senior Justin Labrecque, who leads an aggressive defensive line with four sacks and eight tackles for loss. “He’s just such a knowledgeable player.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig