The last time varsity football was played in Washington County, it was grounded not by a 3-4 defense but the Great Depression.

More than 75 years later it is back, as a cooperative entry from Calais and Woodland high schools is preparing for its season opener next Friday night at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield.

“We never really thought it would happen when we started out playing pee wee and bantams,” said Blake Ford, a senior linebacker and fullback for the Silverados. “But when we realized we were too old for bantam, we knew we had to get something going. That’s when it really started, that’s when we really wanted to play varsity.”

The team took a unique route to varsity status, initially developing skills under current Calais-Woodland coach Ian Pratt on a St. Stephen, New Brunswick-based team in the Fundy Football League.

Success came quickly. The team won the Maritime provincial championship in 2006, but the aftermath of that triumph left the oldest players on the team with no place else to play, having aged out of the bantam ranks for players 14 and 15.

Momentum built to join the Maine high school ranks, but Maine Principals’ Association rules generally require two years of subvarsity play in Maine before a team is eligible for the varsity ranks.

So Calais-Woodland played a sub-varsity schedule last fall, but while dominant when it did play, it struggled to find games. Several were canceled, and at one point the team went a month without an opponent.

“It was a struggle,” said senior Eddie Flaherty. “We started to get a persona because we were beating teams 50-0 and no one wanted to play us.”

Prospects for generating a sub-varsity schedule this year were even bleaker, but when Old Town dropped from Class B to Class C, that created an opening for a 12th team in the LTC Class C ranks — one the Silverados were more than happy to fill after MPA approval.

“I always thought of it as having a 50-50 chance because I knew there was a rule about playing for two years,” said Ford, “but when they finally said we could play, it was one of the best days of my life.”

The program remains a work in progress. This fall the Calais High soccer field overlooking the school is being converted for football, with the soccer teams playing games on the baseball field downtown. Next year there are hopes to have separate soccer and football fields side-by-side on campus.

There’s also the challenge of attracting a pool of players from a rural area with no football tradition. Combined, Calais and Woodland have approximately 425 students, but just four players on the current roster are from Woodland.

The Silverados are supported by an active boosters’ group, however, and there is a feeder system in place, with flag football for the youngest players, and pee wee and bantam levels for the older kids before they reach high school.

And members of the inaugural varsity team have waited for this year for a football lifetime.

So let the games begin.

“Five years ago people would have laughed at me when I said I wanted varsity football for Calais,” said Pratt. “Now we’re playing varsity football.

“It’s not very often you’re adding major varsity sports anywhere in Maine right now, most schools are going through cuts. This program has so much community support that it’s 100 percent booster-club funded, and that’s really a strong testament to the community and the importance it places in investing in its kids.”

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...