This fall football season is not what Rocco Mancini wanted. A sophomore two-way lineman at Falmouth High, Mancini thrives in the rugged, physical, in-the-trenches aspect of football.

“I’ve never been somebody who needed to carry the football,” he says.

Because of the decision by the Maine Principals’ Association and multiple state agencies on Sept. 10 to not allow tackle football for high school teams this fall, Mancini and his peers won’t be strapping on the pads. Instead, many schools will play 7-on-7 flag football, which is why Mancini was on Falmouth’s practice field for the first day of fall practice on Monday, dressed in shorts and a ratty t-shirt and going through noncontact drills.

Something was better than nothing.

“The bond that I get with my boys, my best friends, (they will) be lifelong. I’ll talk to some of these guys for the rest of my life. It’s really a way of life. I really just love the way football is. You’re together. You’re a team,” he said.

Across most of the state, football players and coaches are adapting to the new, strange, noncontact season. They are holding out varying degrees of hope that a tackle football season can get played in the spring. Increasingly, as they become resigned to what they have lost, they are becoming grateful for what they can do: Work on football fundamentals, sharpen their footwork, improve their physical conditioning, and, most of all, simply be together.

Coaches understand what players like Mancini are feeling, said Jim Hartman, the head coach of Yarmouth’s eight-man football team.

“The look on their faces when we told them their season was definitely off, it was devastating,” Hartman said.

And sometimes, the players help the coaches get through the disappointment, said Dan O’Connell, the head coach at John Bapst.

“It’s funny how kids teach us a lot. Myself and my staff and a lot of coaches were outraged, and I looked 35 kids in the eye last Thursday after the announcement that we wouldn’t have a season, and they were asking me what we could do. Not what we can’t do,” O’Connell said. “I left the meeting feeling better because those kids are resilient.”

But Hartman said now it’s up to coaches to stress the positive and use the “six, seven weeks of practice (to) see if we can get them mentally to another level.” And 7-on-7 flag football (or possibly 5-on-5 between eight-man teams) will provide a competitive outlet.

“That’s the secret of being the good athlete, the good coach, always being positive, always trying to knock down the negatives and look to the prize,” Hartman said. “And for us, we already have talked about playing Portland in 7-on-7, and that means having to learn 11-man concepts. That’s another great learning experience, and hopefully we get those six to eight games in the spring.”

“We’re hoping and we’re planning for that spring competition to actually happen, and if that’s actually taken away from us, that’s when we’ll truly dwell on things, but in the meantime, take advantage of what’s in front of us and take every possible positive from that,” said Portland High Coach Jason McLeod.

At Deering High, first-year head coach John Hardy will start thrice-weekly practices this Monday. The Rams have something definite to prepare for – a 7-on-7 game against Portland on Oct. 9. The game will be in honor of former Deering football player Blain Alves, who died this past May. Alves would have been a senior this year, and Oct. 9 would have been his 17th birthday.

“As of right now, that’s a set date. What happens between now and then, we can’t be sure, but that is a set date and that is something these kids can look forward to and work toward,” Hardy said. “I’m hoping we, as a Portland community, can rally around this idea of 7-on-7.”

In York County, coaches and players would love to be in position to have the same activities as the rest of the state. But York is designated as a “yellow” county by the Maine Department of Education, based on an elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission, which means high school teams aren’t even be allowed to practice.

As a result powerhouse football programs like three-time Class B champion Marshwood, Wells, and 2019 Class A runner-up Thornton Academy are still idle, unable to even hold conditioning workouts with coaches.

“We haven’t done anything since March with our players,” said Thornton Coach Kevin Kezal.

“We know there’s not going to be any football in the fall, and we just want to get out and get together. If you talk to any of our former players, what they remember most is the camaraderie and being together … and that’s the piece that you’re missing out on now.”

Logan Martin, a speedy receiver/runner, was coming off a junior season in which he gained more than 1,700 all-purpose yards and scored 31 touchdowns for Foxcroft Academy. As he watched the on-again, off-again saga of high school sports unfold this summer, Martin wondered if he should transfer to an out-of-state school to pursue his passion for football and his goal of playing in college.

When the decision was finally made by the MPA and state agencies, Martin felt it was too late to transfer, learn an offense and expect to earn playing time. So he’s staying in Maine, and is committed to competing in 7-on-7.

“Me and my guys, we’re working as if we’re playing Friday night, and if we do have 7-on-7 (games), you have to prepare for that,” Martin said. “I shed some tears over the past couple of months just because of the decision. I’m kind of at the point right now, I can’t do anything about it, whether it makes sense or not. I’ve just got to keep working. For me, it’s about showing up every single day and working the best I can. I’m just glad I can still practice.”

Martin said he’s also started to take a more active “aggressive” approach to his recruiting, asking college coaches to be as forthright as possible about their interest. For college coaches and players in the 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) not playing football this fall, the recruitment process will be dramatically different.

Current high school seniors have already lost out on the opportunity to attend college camps over the summer, where they can clock 40-yard dash times, show their strength and try to catch the eye of coaches. Now, they will not have senior season game film.

“What we’ve had to do instead of camps is that we’ve seen videos of (players) doing drills and 1-on-1s, a creative way of simulating camp conditions,” said University of Maine head coach Nick Charlton. “But not having a senior year certainly hurts those guys, and the guys in the following class, because they’re not going to have a junior film.”

Charlton added, “We want to support high school athletes, especially those in Maine. That’s something we will stress going forward.”

The Maine Football Coaches Association is trying to help promote the current seniors. The group has organized a Combine/Prospect Day to be held Oct. 3 at Fitzpatrick Stadium. A second day at a location north of Lewiston-Auburn is in the works and could soon be finalized, said Skip Capone, a longtime high school and college coach who is currently an assistant at Lewiston High. Players will be timed in the 40-yard dash and agility drills, with other football specific skills. College coaches have been invited and the sessions are expected to be videotaped, allowing for the players to send clips to coaches. High school coaches can register their players.

“You have to make the best of a bad situation,” Capone said.

And, from what he’s heard, that’s happening around the state. According to Capone and other coaches like McLeod, participation numbers have held steady and even increased this fall.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s at least what they expected, or more,” Capone said. “Kids are hungry right now. It shows how much they missed it, not just football, all the numbers are up and kids are working extra hard. … They want to get better. They missed the structure, the interaction with coaches and teammates and, in my opinion, they’ve come back even hungrier.”

– Staff Writer Mike Lowe contributed to this report


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