BATH — Morse football coach Jason Darling knew the 2021 season would be different, and for reasons unlike most programs in the state would experience.

Like most programs, the Shipbuilders would return to tackle football after high school teams were only allowed to play 7-on-7 flag football last fall. But Morse is also transitioning to the eight-man division.

Darling said the fundamentals remain the same regardless of eight-man or the traditional 11-man.

Morse head coach Jason Darling addresses the team after wrapping up its first practice of the season Monday at Morse High School in Bath. Eli Canfield/The Times Record

“There’s definitely some subtle changes, but at its core, it’s still blocking and tackling and the same game these guys have been playing,” said Darling. “The biggest benefit is that you’re not forcing a player into a position where they can’t be successful.”

After going 1-8 in 2019, Morse saw a dip in its football program numbers. Darling acknowledged there were times that he had just 16 players suited up to play toward the end of that season.

Now, one year later than planned, the Shipbuilders are gearing up for their first-ever season of eight-man football, a division that now features 25 teams statewide.

Morse athletic director Nathan Priest said he and Darling talked about moving to eight-man football after the 2019 season.

“We experienced injuries early on and had to piece together the rest of that 2019 season,” said Priest. “We took a good hard look at the state of the program and ultimately decided it would be wise to take a step back, even if it’s just for a couple of years if things work out.”

Before preseason began Monday, Morse had 33 players registered. Priest called the number a “pleasant surprise that is exciting.”

Players said this week that they are up for the challenge.

Morse football players run sprints on the opening day of preseason Monday at Morse High School in Bath. Eli Canfield/The Times Record

“It’s going to be different, but I think it’s a change for the better,” said Morse senior tight end/defensive end Ben Doughty.

Added senior Joshter Mors: “Football is football. We’re just glad to be back playing what happened last season, but it’ll be a change for everyone.”

The changes were on display on Monday at school’s turf field.

During portions of practice in which Darling was teaching eight-man schemes, he said he caught himself looking down at his sheet to make sure he had it right.

“It’s been a fun offseason going back over things to fit them into what we can do this year,” said Darling. “The last two years has been a process for me and the rest of the coaching staff.”

Some Morse players added that they think the team is better suited for the eight-man game.

Morse football coach Jason Darling, left, observes his team as players work on a tackling drill Monday at Morse High School in Bath. Eli Canfield/The Times Record

“Eight-man is definitely more of a running game than a passing game, which is a stronger part of our team,” said Doughty.

Added senior linemen Alex Maccio: “It’s a way for us to develop our younger teammates without throwing them out there when they might not be ready.”

The eight-man division will be split into large and small divisions. Morse will play in the large division, along with neighboring Mt. Ararat.

Morse is scheduled to play Camden Hills, Mattanawcook Academy, Orono, Ellsworth, Mount View, Mount Desert Island, and Waterville. The Shipbuilders also travel to Millinocket on Aug. 27 for a scrimmage against Stearns.

“It will be unique,” said Darling. “We’re going to see some teams this season that we’ve never seen in the past.”

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