Nearly 20 percent of varsity football teams in southern Maine are under the direction of rookie head coaches this season.

Like their first-year players, the novice coaches won’t truly know how prepared they are until their varsity debut.

“I’ve never been the person who had to decide whether or not to go for it on fourth down or to try for two points. I guess I’m going to find out what kind of coach I am,” said Spencer Emerson of Poland, 25, the defensive coordinator at Lewiston High last season.

There are rookie coaches in four of the five MPA classes: Rob Susi at Deering and Eric Ouellette at Massabesic in Class A; Matt Nelson of York and Mike Shea of Lake Region in Class C; Emerson in Class D; and David Bryant of Traip Academy and Tim McLaughlin of Sacopee Valley in Class E.

“Like anybody who starts something brand new, you’re always a little nervous,” said Nelson, who captained York’s 1989 Class B state championship team. “Even when I was a player I would always get nervous before games. Once the game gets going those emotions go away, but when you’re sitting there trying to think and game plan, you naturally want things to go right, there’s a little anxiety. Especially for a new coach.”

Of the seven first-time coaches, Susi has the most high school varsity experience, as an assistant at South Portland, Falmouth, Deering (one season as defensive coordinator in 2014) and most recently, Cape Elizabeth. Susi was Deering’s interim head coach in the 2014 Thanksgiving exhibition against Portland after Matt Riddell resigned the day before the game.

“If you’re a coordinator you’re all about coaching and getting ready for games,” Susi said. “When you’re the head coach you have to be worried about every smallest detail from fundraising to dealing with parents to scheduling practices to all the kids who need you for various reasons. It’s very overwhelming as a first-time coach.”

Most of the new coaches are taking over teams that have struggled recently or lack a football tradition.

Traip has won five games since 2013 and forfeited six games last season. Sacopee Valley was 0-40 in five seasons and didn’t play varsity football from 2014-16 prior to last season’s 3-5 finish in Class E.

Poland has never had a winning season and went 1-7 last year after moving down to Class D.

Massabesic has three wins in the last three seasons. Deering was 1-7 last year and lost to Massabesic.

Building enthusiasm will be critical.

“We’ve been averaging right around 40 for practice but that’s freshmen all the way through,” Susi said. “But the kids have worked very hard this summer and word is starting to spread. I’m hopeful we can get up to 45 (players) and then next year really start to build our program back up.”

At York and Lake Region, the dynamic is different. Hometown coaches are inheriting stronger foundations.

York has been in a regional final as recently as 2014 (Class B loss to Marshwood) and Nelson has 14 seniors back from a 4-4 club. The 42-man roster includes Nelson’s sons, senior wide receiver and defensive end Jake Nelson, and sophomore offensive lineman Troy Nelson.

Shea played for Lake Region and has been an assistant coach for six years, the last five as defensive coordinator. Lake Region was 5-3 last season. He’s confident he’s ready to lead continued improvement but knows the true tests are yet to come.

“Absolutely. What am I going to do in a tough situation and how am I going to make those decisions quickly?” Shea said. “That’s going to be a learning curve for me.”

SANFORD WILL OPEN its new 1,500-seat Alumni Stadium (with lots of standing room) on Friday against defending Class A state champion Scarborough. The Spartans won’t have a chance to practice on the field until construction on the adjacent new high school is finished. They did get a tour of the athletic facility earlier this week.

“I saw some kids that were just in awe,” said Coach Mike Fallon. “Because there’s been such build-up, the kids are very, very excited.”

This is the fourth straight year Sanford has opened the season against the defending state champ.

LAST YEAR’S state champions – Scarborough, Marshwood (Class B), Maine Central Institute (C) and Wells (D) – are legitimate contenders to repeat. When was the last time all four classes had back-to-back champs? Not long ago. In 2015, Thornton Academy, Marshwood, Winslow and Oak Hill completed the four-way repeat, with Oak Hill winning its third straight title.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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