After playing a supporting role last season, Wells High senior Payton MacKay says he was well prepared to assume the role of lead back in the Warriors’ offense. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

WELLS — Payton MacKay knows he’s following in a storied lineage of running backs in the Wells High football program.

When he was in middle school, MacKay watched Chris Carney roll up 2,077 yards for the Warriors in 2014. Once he joined the high school team, MacKay kept his eyes on “these insane backs I could look up to and look at to see what they did, what they did differently, to make them that good,” he said.

Tyler Bridge, the 2018 Fitzpatrick Trophy winner. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

As a freshman he studied Riley Dempsey, a captain on the 2016 Class C championship team. Then came fullback Nolan Potter, who led the 2017 team to an undefeated Class D title. Last year MacKay played fullback next to Tyler Bridge, the 2018 Varsity Maine Player of the Year who become Wells’ first Fitzpatrick Trophy winner after rushing for a school-record 2,390 yards and scoring an unofficial Maine single-season record 45 touchdowns.

“Watching all these great running backs it’s like, ‘Wow. I want to be like that,’ ” MacKay said.

MacKay is doing his part to keep the tradition alive. After gaining 1,066 yards as a junior, he’s switched to halfback this season. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder with power and speed has gained 909 yards with 14 rushing touchdowns (15 total) in five games.

Wells, which is back in Class C this year, will take a 33-game win streak into its Saturday night showdown at Leavitt (5-0). Wells’ streak is the ninth-longest current streak in the country, according to MaxPreps.

If Wells beats Leavitt, it will tie Cheverus (2010-12) for the third-longest football win streak in Maine history behind Orono (48 straight from 1977-82) and Marshwood (45 from 1983-87).

Wells’ last loss was the 2016 regular-season finale, 13-7 against Cape Elizabeth.

“We don’t talk about the streak. That’s for other people to talk about,” MacKay said.

In last Friday’s 54-8 win at previously unbeaten Maine Central Institute, MacKay gained 129 yards on 10 carries. Junior fullback Jonah Potter, Nolan’s younger brother, rushed for another 85 yards. MacKay, Potter and wingback Jacob Scott each ran for two touchdowns.

Jonah Potter’s first memories of Wells’ running backs date to the 2011 Class B championship game, which the Warriors won to cap an undefeated season.

“I was really little, and I went with my dad and brother. I just remember watching Louis DiTomasso (then) coming home from that game and thinking, ‘man, when I’m that old I hope I get to do something like that,’ ” he said.

Louis DiTomasso, a 2011 Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

This season Potter is the second option and sometimes shares fullback carries with senior Matt Tufts, a talented runner who is also one of the Warriors’ top defensive players.

Next season, it could be Potter’s turn to step into the limelight.

“Maybe. It’s always nice to think about that,” he said. “I just want to do anything to make the team the best.”

Wells’ running prowess stems from employing the old-school Wing-T formation with great efficiency.

“You can feature either the fullback or the halfback or both,” Coach Tim Roche said.

Roche said you could call any coach in the state and they all would know which Wells plays they have to stop: the sweep, the fullback up the middle (called belly) and the inside trap.

But knowing what Wells will run and actually stopping it are distinctly different. Wells’ running backs have practiced hitting the holes created by pulling linemen thousands of times in practice.

Chris Carney, a 2014 Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Literally every day at practice we would run the same plays,” said Nolan Potter, now a sophomore defensive lineman at Bates College. “Buck sweep on Tuesday, belly series on Wednesday. And the way it worked, you’d run the first team, then the second team, and then the third team.”

Until his senior season, Nolan Potter had just a handful of carries in short-yardage situations. As a senior, he rushed for 1,550 yards and 28 touchdowns. Wells won a second straight state title. Potter, also a standout linebacker, followed Carney (2014) and DiTomasso (2011) as Wells running backs who were named Fitzpatrick Trophy finalists.

Nolan Potter, a 2017 Fitzy finalist. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Before I ever played running back my senior year, I’d been running buck sweep, belly and trap all three years in practice,” Potter said. “At the higher levels it’s always about the next offensive genius, but especially at the high school level, I like that Wells has this distinct style. It’s easy for (our) kids to figure out, and when you’re playing another team it’s pretty demoralizing for them when they know exactly what you’re going to run and they still can’t stop it.”

“I’m a believer in what Coach Roche preaches,” said Bridge, a freshman running back in a spread offense at Bates. “It doesn’t matter if the other team knows what’s coming, the blocking will work well. And if it doesn’t in the first half, all the coaches do a great job making adjustments.”

One thing Wells backs seldom do is fumble. Even when a back is heading down the sideline with a 10-yard cushion (which happens frequently), the ball is tucked tightly between the crook of the elbow and hand, held high under the chin.

“Ball security. From the first day they teach us the points of contact when carrying the ball,” said Nolan Potter. “They were very, very proud of not having fumbles.”

Attention to practice details and preparation will continue Wells’ tradition of running back success, said Bridge.

“We have the abilities that we need because of the strong lifting program that Coach (Mark) Lewia runs,” Bridge said. “That commitment to preparation gives us the strong backs and the fast backs.”

MacKay said learning to give 100 percent effort in the weight room is the biggest lesson he learned from players like Dempsey and Bridge. Now he’s seeing others following his lead.

“Definitely. I don’t want to name anybody yet but yes, we do see some people working hard and you can tell they want it. Which is a good thing,” MacKay said.


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