Fullback Justin Bryant has played a key role in Marshwood High’s success for four seasons, but ankle injuries kept him largely off the field during the Hawks’ championship victories the past two years. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SOUTH BERWICK — Justin Bryant has had a rare level of success as a member of the Marshwood High football team.

He earned the starting fullback job as a freshman and has been a four-year stalwart on one of the best teams in Maine. Twice a 1,000-yard rusher, he’s now a senior captain and unquestioned leader of a 10-1 team that is shooting for its third straight Class B championship Saturday evening against unbeaten Brunswick (11-0) at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium.

But there is one thing missing. For all of Marshwood’s team success – which he is most proud of – Bryant has spent little time on the field during the Hawks’ championship game victories.

Two years in a row, ankle injuries have relegated the normally sturdy 6-foot-1, 210-pound Bryant to the sidelines. Two years in a row, he watched capable backups excel as Marshwood walloped Skowhegan, 63-20, in 2017 and Brunswick, 49-0, last November.

“I just want to play in the game, you know?” Bryant said at Thursday’s practice. “It’s been great getting there. I just want to do my part to help finish it.”

As a sophomore, Bryant suffered a high-ankle sprain to his left ankle in the seventh game of the season. He was able to tape it up and keep playing and was closing in on 700 rushing yards for the season when, three carries into the championship game, “I got landed on and fractured it.”

As a junior, Bryant hurt his right ankle in the South final. There wasn’t enough time to recover. He played “two plays, maybe” against Brunswick, with one carry, and knew he had to get off the field.

Marshwood Coach Alex Rotsko used Bryant’s past misfortune to remind his second-team players to be ready to play. Just in case.

But make no mistake, Rotsko wants Bryant on the field, both at fullback, where he’s rushed for 1,282 yards and 28 touchdowns on 124 carries (10.4 yard per rush), and as a hard-hitting and smart inside linebacker.

“Oh God, yes. More for him than for me,” Rotsko said. “He must be dying to get out there on Saturday.”

His teammates also want to see Bryant at his best.

“He’ll be great,” said Cullen Casey, a senior wide receiver and Bryant’s best friend since third grade. “It will be just how the season went. Four touchdowns, five touchdowns, something like that.”

Backup fullback Ethan Rockafellow, a junior, said he’ll be ready just in case, but …

“I want to see Justin in his full. He knows it’s his last game and he’s going to give it everything he’s got,” Rockafellow said. “Yeah, the last two years, those replacements for him did great, but you can tell he wants to dominate this game.”

Bryant earned Rotsko’s trust as a freshman.

“We were OK at fullback, but by the end of the year, once he learned what to do, he was our best fullback, and we’re going to play the best guy,” Rotsko said.

Playing the “best guy,” is a key coaching tenant for Rotsko, and a window into why he’s 79-13 in eight seasons at Marshwood, with four state titles, after winning 11 Massachusetts titles at Longmeadow High.

But it’s not always easy for a young kid who is supplanting a senior.

“At first it was a little scary,” Bryant said. “I mean, I knew most of the kids, but they didn’t really like me because I (took) some kid’s spot and I went pretty hard at practice.”

Now as a senior, Bryant is the player most often setting the tone. Rockafellow said in practice he watches “exactly what (Bryant) does and I try to model myself after him.”

It’s the same in the weight room, where Bryant can be found after each practice.

“I always look up to him when I lift with him, because he’s just that much better,” Casey said.

Bryant said he’s learned how to make his points in a positive way.

“It’s just trying not to be negative, because that just brings everyone down and makes them play worse,” he said. “It’s just encouraging them. Definitely helping them, telling the how to get better, but in a nicer way.”

Saturday will be Bryant’s last football game. He intends to enlist in the Marines, with plans to report to basic training following graduation.

He said he hasn’t spent time daydreaming about how many touchdowns he wants to score or how many yards he wants to gain.

“I just want to be out there with my friends and play,” Bryant said.

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