September 6, 2013

Steve Solloway: Twenty is plenty for Traip Academy's little team that can

KITTERY — Two days before the start of their football season, the Traip Academy players got to block, tackle and run around another player. A real flesh-and-blood player. For Nick Ovington and his 19 teammates, Wednesday's practice felt different.

"It felt good," said Ovington, a senior and lanky defensive end and offensive guard. "We had our full team today." For the first time in the preseason.

Twenty players? That's enough to play football at Old Orchard Beach in Friday night's season opener. Across Maine, high schools begin the season this weekend. Traip may not have the following of Thornton Academy, the defending Class A champion, but football's heart beats just as steady in this southeast corner of the state.

The unofficial Traip motto is to the point: We do a lot with a little.

This is the team that winks at the number of players on its roster and points to another number. Traip won eight of its 10 games last year. That was good enough to reach the semifinals of the Western Class C playoffs.

Traip will play this season in the newly formed Class D for the smallest of Maine high schools playing football, but its schedule remains pretty much the same.

Twenty players? Many opponents have twice as many. A scrimmage with Winthrop was canceled last Friday when Traip Coach Ron Ross looked at his 15 or so available players.

Winthrop, now in a co-op arrangement with Monmouth Academy, has close to 50 players.

Ross weighed the risks of injuries and the rewards of game experience in a scrimmage and realized they didn't balance. He wanted a healthy team when preseason practice resumed this week. He laughed when he heard that some believed the cancellation of the scrimmage was a signal the entire season would be scrapped.

"We are fine down here," he texted Friday night.

Twenty players? The number is their badge of honor. Chris Czachor, the senior quarterback, tried to recruit classmates to come out for the team. So did Ovington and Matt Graham, the senior fullback and linebacker.

"They'll say yes but then won't show up at practice," said Czachor. "They don't want to do the work." Ovington and Graham agreed. They wanted teammates who would share in the commitment, then share in the victories.

Instead, not enough players came to practice in August to have a full intrasquad scrimmage. "As a player you can't learn much when you're going against air," said Ross. "I can't learn who's the best player for a position when they're going against air."

Do they hold their breath when a player is too slow in getting up after getting knocked down? Or starts walking with a limp? Elsewhere, a man down means a new opportunity for someone in the ranks of backups.

"We're concerned because he's our friend and our teammate," said Czachor. So their number just got one less. They'll lean on each other a little more and trust in the team motto. "We do a lot with a little."

"We're all family," said Graham. "This is a tight group." That means seniors right down to the freshmen.

In the soft light of a late summer afternoon, they posed for a team photo. Shoulder pads to shoulder pads, 20 still looked like 20. Afterward they gathered around big, burly Nate Murphy, an assistant coach with a big voice, and Ross, who commands attention with a quieter directness.

One comment hit home: We need all of you.

"If you've got numbers like ours, there is the chance of feeling defeated before the game is played," said Ross. "We had 15 guys for a scrimmage with Poland and Gray-New Gloucester. I told them afterward, before we played you looked at their numbers and you were scared."

Traip didn't play scared and earned respect, Ross told his players. They listened.

He's beginning his 12th season as head coach. He grew up in nearby Portsmouth, N.H., and played his high school football and was an assistant coach there. The kid from the big school transitioned nicely to the head coach of the small school. He knows how to talk to people.

Ross lost 12 players from last year's team. The school graduated 65 seniors last spring. Enrollment is about 270 and soccer does compete with football for players.

Seven freshmen came out for the team this year. There is only one sophomore, leaving about a dozen juniors and seniors. Traip's first day of school was Thursday, a week later than most Maine high schools. Maybe a few new players would show at practice.

A few more who understand what doing a lot with a little means.

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

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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