Football game of the week: Waterville, Spruce Mountain meet in a mouth-watering clash of eight players

Waterville’s Dastan Hunter is tackled by Cheverus’ Matthew Fogg during last season’s game in Portland. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

WATERVILLE — There isn’t much of a gap in the Big School class of eight this year.

The teams participated in intense competitions in all directions, creating sufficient parity.

While there have been some impressive performances, second-year Waterville coach Isaac LeBlanc is quick to point out that no team seems to be a head above the rest.

“Looking at some of the matchups and watching the games on tape, you can tell there’s a bunch of teams that are very close to each other right up there at the top,” he said. “It really comes down to who plays cleaner and who performs better on the night.”

The Purple Panthers (3-0) will have to do just that this week against Spruce Mountain (2-1) in one of the most mouth-watering eight-man matchups of the 2022 season. Waterville will be in jeopardy going home against a Spruce Mountain team that is one of the biggest and most physical of the eight players.

Waterville enters the match as one of two undefeated Big School eight-man teams (the other being Yarmouth). The Purple Panthers had lopsided wins over Ellsworth/Sumner and Greeley earlier in the season before picking up a key win over Mount Desert Island last week.

The 26-20 win in Week 3 at Bar Harbor came after the Purple Panthers enjoyed a bye week. Spruce Mountain, meanwhile, has scored 116 points in its last two games since losing to MDI 28-26 in the season opener. Phoenix is ​​coming off an impressive 54-22 win over Morse that turned the league around.

Waterville’s Dustan Hunter intercepts a pass intended for MDI’s Brendan Graves during last season’s Big North eight-man playoff game at Drummond Field in Waterville. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We came out and played really well all night,” Spruce Mountain head coach David Frey said. “We played well on both sides. I’ve been telling them all season since the start of the season that this is what we need to do and we were able to do it against a good Morse team.”

Much of Spruce Mountain’s offensive success has come from one source: running back Rhys Davis. Two weeks ago, the senior defensive end rushed for 212 yards on just four carries. Then he eclipsed 330 yards and six touchdowns on 18 carries in a win over Morse.

For Waterville, containing Spruce Mountain means finding a way to stop the 200-pound Davis. That’s a tall order against a back who has tremendous speed and ability to change direction for his size — and, as LeBlanc points out, knows how to use that structure and skill set to his advantage.

“It’s going to take us doing our jobs, being quick on the ball and knowing our assignments,” LeBlanc said. “We know we’re going to have to be physical with the kid because he’s not afraid to run hard; he’s going to run through you and he’s going to run around you. He has everything and we have to be at our best defensively.”

Waterville, however, has no shortage of weapons of its own, both offensively and defensively. Dawson Harrison and Dustan Hunter have excelled at nearly every position on offense; Wyatt Gradie is a skilled passer who can also make plays with his feet; Spencer Minihan is a surefire receiver and always the Panthers’ best player on defense.

Waterville’s Dawson Harrison battles Cheverus’ Peyton Mitchell during a game last season in Portland. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

Against MDI, Hunter remained at fullback for most of the game after Grady left the game with an injury in the second quarter. While LeBlanc already knows which of the two players will be under center Friday night, those outside the program won’t know until the Panthers take the field for the first time on offense.

“I think our guys really believe that you have to be able to change your plan and be flexible to accomplish the goals that you want to accomplish,” LeBlanc said. “We’re going to game plan and create what we think is going to help us try to win the game, and our guys know that means we have to be ready in different situations.”

It’s the weekend for Waterville, which means the Purple Panthers, who otherwise play their home games on Saturday afternoons in the fall, will get to experience the lights on Friday night. It’s sure to bring added excitement and intensity to Waterville, something Frey knows his team will need to match to leave Drummond Field with a win.

“Basically, (our goal) is what anybody would say before a tough game like this: We’ve got to play mistake-free football and we’ve got to be ready to play,” Frey said. “It’s a big game for us but we know how important it is for them. They will definitely be ready for us.”

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