At first glance, the eight-man football state championship game on Saturday would seem a mismatch.

Mt. Ararat High (8-2), a school with more than 700 students, will play Old Orchard Beach (7-3), which has fewer than 250, at 2 p.m. at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium. During the regular season, Mt. Ararat hosted OOB and rolled to a 46-8 win.

But the two programs share many similarities, including uncommon success this fall in the inaugural season of eight-man football in Maine. Each has a roster of 25 players for Saturday’s title game.

Mt. Ararat Coach Frank True celebrates with his team after a 52-20 win over Yarmouth in the eight-man Large School division semifinals. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

From 2011-18, Mt. Ararat went 14-55 in Class B, churned through coaches and saw its participation rate plummet, ending last season with fewer than 20 players. The Eagles had never won a playoff game until this fall.

“Just having Mt. Ararat football and a championship game in the same sentence, that’s something special,” said Eagles Coach Frank True.

True should know. He played on a winless Mt. Ararat team in 1983. Funding was dropped after that season and football was eliminated. It didn’t return officially until 1999 after two years as a club team.

Old Orchard Beach played last season in Class E, the developmental league that existed in 2017 and 2018 for teams struggling to compete in traditional enrollment divisions. The Seagulls went 17-25 from 2014-18, and last played for a state championship in 1996.

OOB Coach Dean Plante was an early advocate of eight-man football in Maine. For him, it was a common-sense response to shrinking school enrollments and decreasing participation in football due, in part, to safety concerns.

“Credit needs to be given to the (Maine Principals’ Association) and those of us who embraced it,” Plante said. “It’s one of the smartest things I’ve seen them do in a long time.”

Ten of the state’s 78 high school football programs opted to play in the eight-man league this fall. Old Orchard Beach won the Small School division, comprised of five schools with fewer than 350 students. Mt. Ararat is champion of the Large School division.

When Mt. Ararat defeated OOB on Oct. 5, the Seagulls were struggling with injuries and illnesses. Since then, OOB has won five straight, scoring at least 44 points in each. Junior quarterback Jaden Davies has thrown 20 touchdown passes and has rushed for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns. Jacob Payea has 220 carries for 1,699 yards and 18 touchdowns. Ryan Crockett has been a big-play threat at receiver, with 15 catches for 519 yards and nine TDs.

Mt. Ararat is led by senior running backs Riley Morin (more than 1,400 yards rushing) and Holden Brannan (over 1,000 yards), who provide an inside-outside threat and are both capable of long runs. The defense has learned how to come up and make tackles in space with authority. Most of all, there is a feeling of accomplishment, True said, and community enthusiasm. That was on display in playoff wins against Yarmouth and Maranacook.

“We had a great turnout at Maranacook,” True said of last week’s game. “We had a fan bus come up last week, and I think we have a fan bus going this week. (Businesses) are wishing us good luck on their signs; stuff we’ve never seen before. Eight-man football has been really good to us.”

Old Orchard Beach Coach Dean Plante is congratulated by Principal John Suttie before being handed the eight-man Small School division championship trophy last Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Both teams feature key players who didn’t even go out for football last fall.

Brannan played football for Mt. Ararat as a freshman and sophomore but opted to play soccer as a junior. “One of the reasons (I came back to football) was because of eight-man, because I knew we had a chance to do something special,” he said.

Crockett, the Old Orchard junior receiver, had not played high school football before this fall. “Eight-man was one of the things that made me want to play, because people say that it’s safer, it has more of an open field,” he said after the first game of the season. “A lot of passing, and I knew they could throw to me.”

One critical difference between the teams is that Mt. Ararat is a senior-laden team. OOB is almost exclusively sophomores and juniors.

“Our goal was to get to the playoffs and then earn the right to play one more game,” Plante said. “We’re excited for the chance. Mt. Ararat has 700-plus kids in its school and they took it to us pretty good, and we’re certainly in that ‘Hoosiers’ role.”

Both coaches understand that Saturday’s title game will showcase eight-man football, whose ranks in Maine are expected to grow in 2020.

Plante did not want to name schools individually, but said several 11-man programs have “reached out for film because they’re considering” switching to eight-man. True said he’s received similar inquiries.

Mike Hathaway, the head coach at Class C power Leavitt, said in his role as secretary of the coaches association and in conversations with other Class C coaches, he would anticipate “at least five or six teams going to eight-man.”

Mt. View Coach Rick Leary said his Class D school, which went 1-7 this season, will be holding discussions about switching to eight-man.

“We only have 11 kids returning, and the best scenario for kids moving up from eighth grade is only seven or eight kids going up,” Leary said. “In retrospect, we would have been strong in eight-man this year. Having this eight-man football is keeping the game going, and that’s important for these kids.”

When the football season is over, the MPA will develop a survey to send to schools to get feedback on which schools are interested in switching to eight-man, said MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham.

“There have certainly been inquiries,” Burnham said.

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