SACO — A year ago, they were juniors watching on the sideline at Fitzpatrick Stadium during the Class A state championship game, knowing they would not get to play.

Ryan MacPhee and Kam Emory were junior varsity players on a deep, talented and senior-laden Thornton Academy football team that capped an undefeated season with a 42-27 win against Oxford Hills. They hadn’t played a varsity snap all season.

That wasn’t going to change in a competitive state final. It was much the same for classmate Chase Hanson. He was on the point-after team, “but I did not get a varsity snap on offense or defense,” Hanson said.

But MacPhee, Emory and Hanson were not sulking about a lack of playing time. They knew their efforts in practice had contributed to the team’s success. They enjoyed being part of what each describes as a “family” atmosphere. They also knew with 25 players graduating, their time to shine would come in 2022 – if they worked hard to keep improving in the offseason.

Hanson, a 6-foot-1, 280-pound right tackle; MacPhee, a 6-0, 185-pound defensive tackle; and Emory, a 6-2, 165-pound free safety, will return to Fitzpatrick Stadium on Saturday for another Class A championship game against undefeated Oxford Hills. This time, the three Saco residents are starters.

“I just remember feeling the rush whenever I would see a great play,” MacPhee said of last year’s championship game. “Knowing that this year I’m going to be in on those plays, the adrenaline is going to be unlike anything. Emotions are going to be flying and pads are going to be smashing against each other. It’s going to be a blast.”


Thornton Academy is playing in its seventh state championship game in the last 10 seasons, and looking for its sixth championship during that span. Unlike the previous six trips, Thornton (8-2) is a slight underdog, having lost 25-20 to Oxford Hills (10-0) in the regular season. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.

Thornton’s championship teams have featured star players such as Andrew Libby, Austin McCrum and Anthony Bracamonte. This year, running back Hayden Whitney, one of the few returning starters, has rushed for 1,462 yards, gaining nearly nine yards per carry.

Detractors of the public/private school are always quick to point out the football roster includes tuition students who live outside the Saco-area school district, including an occasional impact player who lives in the on-campus dorms.

But Thornton’s consistency over the past decade is primarily a function of the team’s overall depth, born of its strong youth program and developed by longtime coaches at every level.

“It’s a program. It’s not just us at the high school,” said Thornton Coach Kevin Kezal. “We’re fortunate we have a great youth program.”

Kezal specifically pointed to middle school coach/director Brian Cyr and freshman coach Jack Morrison, who this season won his 200th game, as coaches who keep young players interested in football.


“Football is all about numbers, all about retention. You can’t lose kids,” Kezal said. “The biggest thing we want is for kids to come back each year.”

That’s what Hanson, MacPhee and Emory have done. Each grew up playing in the Junior Trojans program, Hanson and MacPhee beginning in elementary school, and Emory joining in sixth grade.

At Tuesday’s practice, Hanson pointed to the empty home bleachers when asked why he stayed committed to Thornton football.

“I just love the tradition here. Ten years ago, I was one of the kids sitting up there getting the high-fives. Now I’m here and I’m the one giving the high-fives,” he said. “You always learn from the people above you and you just keep going to try to keep that tradition alive and the success rolling.”

Emory said there were no guarantees he would be a starter this season.

“I did not know. But I put in the work to prepare for my position,” he said. “I feel great, like all the work paid off. All the lifts. All the workouts. It’s just really paying off.”


Emory, who has been in on 30 tackles, is part of a secondary that has improved over the season and will need to be at its peak against the best passing attack in Class A. Oxford Hills quarterback Eli Soehren, who was injured early in the regular-season game, is back and completing 67.4 percent of his throws. Tall, physical receivers Teigan Pelletier, Tanner Bickford and tight end Lincoln Merrill have combined for 118 catches and 27 touchdowns.

MacPhee will try to do his part by getting pressure on Soehren. He’s made 24 solo tackles, with three quarterback sacks, and has 25 assists.

“I feel like I’ve made an impact. I’m pretty sure if I didn’t make a big enough one, I would have lost my position,” MacPhee said.

Seniors Mac Lowe and Mason Collins are two more first-year starters. Also products of the Junior Trojans program, neither played at the high school level until this season because of a combination of injuries and the COVID year of 2020. The rangy 6-foot-4 Lowe has become a standout defensive end with 63 tackles, a team-high five sacks and three interceptions. Collins has been a key special teams player and rushed for 158 yards as Whitney’s backup.

“That’s the difference in our team. If we don’t have those five kids, we’re probably not playing this Saturday,” Kezal said.

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