Football Game of the Week: Waterville and Spruce Mountain meet in an appetizing eight-man clash

Waterville’s Dustan Hunter is brought down by Cheverus’ Matthew Fogg during a game last season in Portland. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

WATERVILLE — There isn’t much separation at the top of the eight-man big school class this year.

The teams have engaged in close competition across the board, creating plenty of parity.

Although some impressive performances have been put in, Waterville’s sophomore coach Isaac LeBlanc is quick to point out that no team seems to be head and shoulders above the rest.

“Looking at some of the matchups and watching video games, you can tell there are a lot of teams very close to each other up there at the top,” he said. “It really comes down to who plays the cleanest and who executes the best on any given night.”

The Purple Panthers (3-0) will have to do just that this week against Spruce Mountain (2-1) in one of the most desirable eight-man matchups of the 2022 season. Waterville will be under the spotlight for the homecoming against a Spruce Mountain team that is one of the biggest and most physical in the eight-man ranks.

Waterville enters the matchup as one of two undefeated eight-man big school teams (Yarmouth is the other). The Purple Panthers posted lopsided victories over Ellsworth/Sumner and Greely earlier in the season before earning a key victory over Mt. Desert Island last week.

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

Waterville’s Dustan Hunter intercepts a pass intended for MDI’s Brendan Graves during an eight-man playoff game at Large North last season 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 solid on both sides of the ball. I’ve been telling them all season since the beginning of the season that that’s something we need to do, and we were able to do it against a good Morse team.”

Much of Spruce Mountain’s offensive success comes from a single source: running back Reece Davis. The senior running back rushed for 212 yards on just four carries two weeks ago against Ellsworth/Sumner. He then topped 330 yards and scored six touchdowns on 18 carries in the win over Morse.

For Waterville, containing Spruce Mountain means finding a way to stop the 200-pound Davis. That’s a challenging task against a running back who has remarkable speed and the ability to change direction for his size and, as LeBlanc will note, knows all too well how to use that frame and skill set to his advantage.

“It’s going to drive us to do our jobs, be quick and know our assignments,” LeBlanc said. “We know that we are going to have to be physical with the boy because he is not afraid to run hard; he’s going to run through you, and he’s going to run around you. He has it all and we will have to give our best defensively”.

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

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

Against MDI, Hunter filled in at quarterback for much of the game after Gradie left with an injury in the second quarter. Although LeBlanc already knows which of the two players will line up 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 embrace the mindset that you have to be able to change your plan and be flexible to reach the goals that you want to reach,” LeBlanc said. “We’re going to plan the game and put something together that we think is going to help us try to win a ballgame, and our guys know that means we have to be ready in different situations.”

It’s Waterville’s homecoming weekend, which means the Purple Panthers, who otherwise play their home games on Saturday afternoons in the fall, will get to experience the Friday night lights. That’s sure to bring more 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 anyone will say before a difficult match like this: we have to play error-free football and we have to be ready to play,” Frey said. “It’s a great game for us, but we also know how important it is for them. They’re definitely going to be ready for us.”

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