The Gorham High football team prepares for a kickoff during its season opener last week. This season, the Rams have 51 players on the roster – more than twice as many players as in 2014.   Adam Birt / American Journal

GORHAM — Gorham High football coach Andy Hager knows his team is bucking both a state and national trend.

While football programs across Maine have watched participation decrease by 8 percent since the 2014 season, Gorham’s roster has more than doubled in size.

On Wednesday, Dirigo High of Dixfield became the second program this season to cancel its varsity season because its roster had shrunk to 20 or fewer players, raising concern for player safety. Orono shelved its varsity program in the preseason. Dirigo became the eighth school in Maine to suspend its football season since 2012.

Dirigo and Orono are Class D schools, with enrollments of 219 and 338 students, respectively. Gorham does have the advantage of being a much larger school with over 800 students.

But when sixth-year head coach Andy Hager was in his first season in 2014, “we were down to 19 players and I was afraid we were going to be shut down.”

“We were at that point where we had to make the decision whether we wanted to continue,” said Gorham Athletic Director Tim Spear.

This year Gorham has 51 players on its roster and opened the season with a resounding 34-7 win against Noble.

Remarkably, Gorham has grown its program while it often struggled to win on the field. From 2012 to 2016 the Rams won one game. In 2017, Gorham snapped an 18-game losing streak in Week 2 and finished 3-6. Last season the Rams were 4-4 in the regular season.

How did the Rams survive long enough that they are now beginning to thrive?

For starters, the Gorham administration stuck with Hager. A 2006 Gorham graduate, Hager played on teams that advanced to the Class B state championship in 2003 and the Western Maine final the next year. Hager’s brother played on the 2006 team that reached the Class A final.

But when Hager was hired he was 25 years old, had never been a head coach and was inheriting a program coming off consecutive winless seasons. Gorham won one game in Hager’s first three seasons.

“I’m outrageously grateful to Tim Spear and the Gorham administration. It would have been easy to can me after two, three years. Easy,” Hager said.

Spear, Hager, and Gorham’s players point to the consistency of Gorham’s coaching staff as a key factor to building rosters even without wins. Hager and assistants Sam Morrison and Abe Tabachnick work in the high school. Tom Whitney, another assistant, is a mentor to both players and the youngish coaching staff, Hager said. Volunteer Nick Lewis, who played at Gorham in some of the lean years, is another invaluable staff member and role model for the players.

“Coach Mo and Coach T, they see an athletic-looking kid in the school and say, ‘Why don’t you play football,’ ” said senior lineman Anthony Valley, one of Gorham’s four senior captains.

With continuity comes the ability to build a culture. In Gorham’s case, the football program touts five key pillars to success: effort, pride, grit, commitment and discipline.

Oh, and Hager said he makes sure, every day, to tell his players that he loves them.

Gorham High touts the strong bond it’s built as the reason behind the growth in football participation. From left, Anthony Valley, Isaac Rollins, Coach Andy Hager, Kyle Ouillette, Henri Kuntz and Elijah Wyatt. Steve Craig photo

“You can tell for some kids, that’s the first time they’ve ever heard that from another man,” Hager said.

“I think we just developed such a strong bond and we keep welcoming new kids into this bond,” said senior quarterback Isaac Rollins, another captain. “And every kid that comes onto this team ends up loving the sport because we’ve developed such a bond.”

As numbers have increased, Gorham has been able to re-establish a solid junior varsity program. Gorham’s coaches and players have worked to be a presence at the youth level to keep building interest.

“We do a spring camp where the elementary kids come and we go down to the middle-school practices every week and help them with their technique,” said senior captain Kyle Ouillette, a hard-hitting outside linebacker. “So they get used to us being there and helping them, and they’re ready when they come up here.”

Gorham isn’t the only football program in Maine to see growth. South Portland, under first-year coach Aaron Filieo, has shot up from 32 players on its 2018 roster to 70 this year.

So it is possible to build even when participation levels in many high school sports have dropped both in Maine and across the nation.

Henri Kuntz had never played football until his freshman year when Gorham went 0-8. But Kuntz, now a senior captain, found something bigger than a win-loss record. “I remember joining the team and just instantly being welcomed, and wanting to jump right in and have fun.”

“The No. 1 research reason why kids play sports is because they’re fun,” said Spear. “So we have to make it that way.”

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