November 22, 2013

Steve Solloway: Kennebunk buzzes over its perfect football team

The community returns to its roots in preparation for a championship game

KENNEBUNK — Cathy Zub paid for her purchases and was about to walk away from the checkout line when she stopped to ask a question. Going to the game?

Of course, said Adrienne Dumas, the cashier. Her smile was pretty big. Wasn’t everybody?

Neither one had mentioned Kennebunk High, its football team or its opponent. It was understood. Virtually everyone in town seems to know Kennebunk plays Cony High of Augusta for the Class B state championship Friday night at the University of Maine.

This town and its sister community Kennebunkport are quintessentially New England. Conservative decorum is the norm. People don’t go ga-ga when former presidents George H.W. Bush and his son, George W., are in the neighborhood at Walker’s Point. Fans are on the verge of ga-ga over their unbeaten high school football team.

“It’s electric around here,” said Kristen Parker, who graduated from Kennebunk High in 1979 and has been the school’s athletic administrative assistant for the past 12 years. “We love these kids.”

To cynical eyes, the joy seems so innocent, so pure. This is a football team that hasn’t won a state championship since 1991, played for another in 1999 but lost and has been coached by the same man since 1980. Joe Rafferty has earned more than respect over the years. There seems to be deep-rooted affection for the man who understands discipline and compassion.

“He’s no-nonsense and he’s fair,” said Dan Boothby, the manager at Cummings Market, where Zub was shopping Thursday afternoon. He played for Coach Raff some 30 years ago, and his three sons, Daniel, Thomas and Jacob, have played for Rafferty. The youngest, Jake, is a junior center and defensive lineman. Tom played on the 1999 team that lost to Belfast for the state title. Dan Jr. and Tom live in the Boston area; both will be in Orono.

“We’ve had a lot of great kids, great teams, but not championship teams,” said Boothby. “Yes, Kennebunk certainly has grown. But the new faces seem to be New England faces and we understand each other.”

That Rafferty has been a fixture at the high school and has taught or advised students for two generations has created a sense of ownership in this year’s team. Yes, Boothby sees more and more familiar but forgotten faces at football games. Former classmates and teammates who have returned to witness an 11-0 team now trying to win a state championship. It doesn’t matter if some are jumping on the bandwagon. It’s all good. He said more than 3,000 fans ringed the Kennebunk High field for last Saturday’s 41-14 win over Marshwood High of South Berwick.

“I’ve never seen a crowd that large at the high school,” said Parker. “It was amazing how many people came out to watch.”

Dumas is a junior at Kennebunk High, a school that has been very proactive in asking its students to look out for each other. She knows football players. She goes to the games. “They’re undefeated but they’re not full of themselves. They know they haven’t been beaten but that’s a pride thing. They have a lot of hope. They have one more game to play.”

Dumas will be on one of the four fan buses leaving Kennebunk around 2 p.m. for the nearly three-hour drive north to Orono. The football team will leave around noon.

The student body has been encouraged to wear white to school (Kennebunk’s colors are white and blue) for a huge white-out that will be the send-off for the team.

An editor’s note in the weekly York County Coast Star newspaper called for readers to wear white, bring hand-made signs or use the one printed in the newspaper, and join the gathering when the team departs for Orono.

Elementary school students will line the Eastern Trail footbridge over the Maine Turnpike, just north of the Kennebunk rest stops, and wave at the team buses when they pass beneath. This is timeless stuff not always seen in today’s more sophisticated or discouraged world, depending on your viewpoint.

“This is good for the community,” said Boothby, a soft-spoken man who voiced his respect for Friday night’s opponent, Cony High of Augusta, and was everything but boastful. “It’s good for the older folk.”

He’s watched more of his parents’ generation reconnect with the town’s high school, its football team and the head coach everyone knows.

Zub has a daughter, Rebecca, in high school. When Rebecca discovered her adviser for her high school years would be Rafferty, she asked her mom how could she relate to a football coach? That was three years ago.

“She loves him,” said Zub. “He understands kids.”

He has coached football for more than 30 years. He has been overshadowed by men like John Wolfgram at Cheverus High and Kevin Cooper at Bonny Eagle High.

After so many years there are always rumors that the current season will be his last. There seems to be more credence to the talk this year. Win or lose, what a season to remember.

“I hear the rumors and that’s what they are,” said Boothby. “Coach Raff is too young. He can’t retire.”

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

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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