Thornton Academy’s Caleb Pelletier reaches for the goal line as he gets in for a two-point conversion against Biddeford during a freshman football game at Waterhouse Field. Both Biddeford and Thornton Academy have strong freshman programs, but that has become a rare thing in Maine. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

Thornton Academy’s Caleb Pelletier reaches for the goal line as he gets in for a two-point conversion against Biddeford during a freshman football game at Waterhouse Field. Both Biddeford and Thornton Academy have strong freshman programs, but that has become a rare thing in Maine. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

If a high school football program wants to be successful year after year it needs a strong feeder system. Now, that may start with youth football, but in Maine it has also meant the development players went through on a school’s freshman team.

Biddeford’s Scott Kelly turns the corner on a long run as Thornton Academy’s Quinn McCollom tries to chase him down during a game at Waterhouse Field. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

Biddeford’s Scott Kelly turns the corner on a long run as Thornton Academy’s Quinn McCollom tries to chase him down during a game at Waterhouse Field. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

For Biddeford and Thornton Academy, freshman football is still an important part of their programs, but it has been getting harder and harder to find games for their ninth-grade squads.

“It’s just unfortunate that it’s a sign of the times,” said TA varsity football coach Kevin Kezal. “Numbers dwindle throughout the year, I mean later in the season there are more kids banged up, some have quit, and it’s just harder and harder every year (to find opponents).”

Biddeford’s Alec Beaulieu hauls in a pass during a recent freshman football game against Thornton Academy at Waterhouse Field. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

Biddeford’s Alec Beaulieu hauls in a pass during a recent freshman football game against Thornton Academy at Waterhouse Field. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

Some smaller schools are forced to bring down sophomores and juniors to fill out the freshman roster, which Curit believes hurts the development of the freshman players.

“I think so many teams are dropping their freshman programs, or they have a mishmash of players. If everyone had a bona fide freshman team, which is sort of unrealistic I get that, but from a developmental standpoint we’ve always tried to keep our freshmen groups together,” said Curit.

Thornton Academy’s Costa Gikas picks up some yards during a freshman football game against Biddeford. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

Thornton Academy’s Costa Gikas picks up some yards during a freshman football game against Biddeford. PAT McDONALD/Journal Tribune

While Curit would love to see freshman vs. freshman only during these games, he understands the problems schools are having as enrollment and athletic participation drops.

“None of us complain about that, that’s a reality. We did that last year as we had I think two sophomores who would swing down and play,” said Curit. “Back in the day, everybody had a bona fide schedule and you had a real good pulse of what you would be like in two or three years.”

Thornton Academy has been able to fill out some holes in its freshman schedule with trips out of state.

“Our sub-varsity and freshman, it’s been tough. I mean we end up playing a lot of games out of state. Our freshman have been to Pentucket, Massachusetts to play, they are going to Exeter, New Hampshire. Our sub-varsity team is hosting Manchester Central,” said Kezal.

Kezal was quick to praise TA Athletic Director Gary Stevens for making sure his sub-varsity teams have full schedules.

“I’ve got to give our athletic director a lot of credit. Gary Stevens has done a phenomenal job. Some weeks we have known early in the week, but a couple other times teams don’t let us know until late. To Gary’s credit, he’s been able to find both our JV and freshman a game every week and I know he’s put a lot of energy and time into it,” Kezal said.

Kezal believes TA’s ability to send his freshman team on trips out of state has been great for the players.

“That trip to Pentucket, they had a great time,” said Kezal. “They were able to take a chartered bus down. We packed a dinner for them, so they went down, they played the game, they were able to eat on the way home, it was a comfortable ride. It was a really good experience for them to get out of Maine to go play football and I think we’re going to be doing more of that. It’s just where we are at.”

Both Curit and Kezal agree that freshman football is crucial to their varsity program’s future success.

“Especially in football where it’s so numbers driven, it’s the lifeblood of your program. All it takes in one small group or one weaker group and it can really kind of hinder your development because you have to kind of get through that group,” said Kezal. “It’s not like it’s a one year thing, it’s something where you have to deal with it when they are sophomores, juniors and seniors. So to have a really good group, you know that hopefully they continue developing and that should be a pretty solid group through the next few years.”

“I think it’s great, and I think from a developmental standpoint it’s very important,” added Curit.

Coaching them up

One thing both Biddeford and TA have in common is a very experienced coaching staff at the freshman level.

Leading the way for Biddeford is Keith LeBlanc, who has help from his dad and former freshman coach Carl LeBlanc.

Biddeford fans will also recognize another assistant on the sidelines as longtime athletic director Don Wilson is back helping the young Tigers.

“I also have Don Wilson and what a neat thing because we’ve come kind of full circle. Don was one of my coaches and he just turned 70 this year. He was one of my coaches when I was in high school and we’ve always been real close,” said Curit. “He was a longtime AD and now he’s got a chance now sort of go back to coaching football which is great.”

Curit believes his freshman team has one of the best staffs in the state.

“I don’t think there’s many programs that are blessed with three guys that know football as well as they do and they are good with kids,” said Curit.

Thornton also has an excellent staff with Jack Morrison leading the charge for Kezal.

“Jack’s been with me since I’ve been head coach. Jack’s been here for over 30 years. He’s the guy that hired me at Thornton Academy, he was the head of the math department and gave me my first job at TA. I’ve worked very closely with Jack since I got here,” said Kezal. “He does a great job with them, he and his whole staff. You have Greg Paradis, who was the head baseball coach, he’s been with me since I started. Mark Gagne is a former head football coach at TA. He’s just got a phenomenal staff.”

Bright future

The Biddeford and Thornton Academy freshman teams faced each other at Waterhouse Field recently, and Curit left that game feeling confident for the future.

Curit pointed to fullback Aidan Donovan, running backs Scott Kelly and Cody Albert, and receivers Liam Donovan and Jack Smith as potential future varsity standouts. The head coach also recognized quarterback Ashton Crowell, who missed the TA game and the entire second half of the season with injury, as someone who will make some noise on the varsity level.

“They’ve got an exceptional quarterback, an exceptional fullback and two exceptional tailbacks. They’ve got some real good receivers,” said Curit who was also impressed with the freshman linemen — led by Trevor Dore, Zach Lau, Josh Rudman, Aushe Edmond and Nick Therrien. “For a BIddeford team they are real big. I was real impressed with the way they were physical.”

Curit also praised the Thornton Academy freshman squad.

“I take my hat off to Thornton they have some special kids there, too,” Curit said.

While Curit was impressed with what he saw on the field, he has also been excited to see the freshman players really put in the work off the field.

“I’m very impressed with this group,” said Curit. “A core of that class has been in the weight room during the summer time, and I think we are at a point now in Biddeford where people understand that if they want to play and be competitive then they have to pay a price there.”

Curit has made a point of getting to as many freshman games as possible.

“I think it’s important for them to see us there,” Curit said.

Kezal also tries to get to as many freshman games as possible.

“If they play on a Thursday, we’ll have a quick practice because it’s pre-game for us and I’ll be able to go watch. If I catch a half of a game, every other couple weeks, and see them at practice,” said Kezal.

The longtime TA coach also has confidence in his coaches and calls his freshman program “their own entity.”

“They practice by themselves, they have their own locker room, they travel by themselves,” said Kezal. “It’s something that’s nice because it’s probably the last time that all those kids will probably play together until their senior year because next year the really good ones are going to be varsity players and the rest of them will be all JV guys.”

This year’s freshman squad features plenty of future TA stars, including talented running back Costa Gikas who had a big game against Biddeford.

“I really haven’t had a chance to see them much, but obviously he’s a big kid, he’s an athletic kid,” said Kezal of Gikas. “He’s a weight room kid already. His dad is one of my assistant strength coaches, so the whole family, Athan who is a junior and Costa, he’s obviously got a lot of potential.”

Another player with a ton of potential is Daniel Tarbox, who is the younger brother of former TA standout and current University of Maine defensive end Dakota Tarbox.

“It’s funny because you see Daniel on the field and he has the same mannerisms as Dakota. He’s obviously got just a lot of natural ability already,” said Kezal.

Kezal believes this year’s freshman group has a chance to be special.

“We’re fortunate. It’s a big group for us, and a pretty successful group. They won the middle school, eighth grade, last year and it’s a good group,” Kezal said.

Sports Editor Pat McDonald can be reached at [email protected] or at 282-1535 ext. 322. Follow the Journal Tribune Sports Department on Twitter @JournalTsports.


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