Jacob Doolan of Maine Maritime Academy finds plenty of running room during a 2016 game against SUNY Maritime at Castine. The running back is among 11 seniors who must lead the way for a Mariners team laden with underclassmen. Credit: Tony Llerena Photo

The Maine Maritime Academy football program didn’t mind having a bye in its schedule last week after playing only one game.

The early respite provided many of the Mariners an opportunity to regroup after returning to Castine on July 31 from the school’s annual 90-day summer training cruise with only a short break before beginning preseason practices.

“I kind of like this week as a bye because with our guys coming back from the cruise just before preseason they didn’t get many days off,” said 17th-year MMA head coach Chris McKenney. “It gives everybody a chance to regroup and catch our breath.”

Last week’s bye also allowed the Mariners, 1-8 a year ago, to take stock after their season-opening 59-13 loss at SUNY Maritime on Sept. 2.

MMA, which has boasted one of the more prolific rushing offenses among NCAA Division III programs over the years, managed just 105 yards on the ground and 230 yards of total offense against the Privateers, which jumped out to a 23-0 first-quarter lead.

“I thought we’d play a lot better than we did but we got off to a rough start and had some things snowball on us in the beginning,” said McKenney. “As our kids always do, we fought the whole game but could never get anything rolling on either side of the ball.”

Perhaps such early travails shouldn’t be unexpected — 43 players of the 58-man roster are freshmen or sophomores.

“I think we’ll grow throughout the season,” McKenney said, “but we’ll have some growing pains with guys in some spots who don’t have a lot of experience right now.”

Leading that young cast will be captain and linebacker Cody O’Brien of Wells, one of 11 seniors. O’Brien tied for second on the team in tackles last fall with 63.

Other key seniors include fullback James Ferrar of Cumberland, quarterback Corey Creeger of Biddeford, halfback Jacob Doolan of Fairfield and wide receiver Jordan Susi of South Portland.

Ferrar, a third-year starter, rushed for a team-high 737 yards on 153 carries in 2016, while Creeger rushed for 714 yards and 17 touchdowns and passed for 847 yards after being converted to quarterback last year and Doolan added 674 yards to the rushing attack.

“We’re a little younger on the defensive side of the ball,” McKenney said. “There’s a lot of sophomores playing over there, kids getting their feet wet.”

While the roster’s youth reflects one agent of change for an MMA program seeking its first winning campaign since 2010, another significant change is the program’s move to the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference for football, beginning Sept. 23 at home against the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

That first-year football league also includes fellow former New England Football Conference entries Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Coast Guard, perennial New England power Springfield (Massachusetts) College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Norwich (Vermont) University, Catholic University of Washington, D.C., and Merchant Marine Academy of Kings Point, New York.

“There are some teams that are very similar to us and other teams we’ve never played before and are pretty good football teams from some pretty good schools,” said McKenney. “I think once the conference gets going you’ll start to get a feel for who’s got what and where we’re headed with things, but we’re going to take them one at a time.”

Before the Mariners begin NEWMAC play comes their annual rivalry matchup against Massachusetts Maritime, Saturday’s 45th Admiral’s Cup game at Ritchie Field on the MMA campus.

MMA has won the last two meetings, including a 42-35 win at Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, last fall on Doolan’s 9-yard touchdown run with 19 seconds left.

“Obviously the biggest goal is to try to have a winning season and along the way there are certain teams we play that we want to make sure we’re winning those games,” McKenney said. “The Admiral’s Cup is a pretty important; it’s something we’re always talking about.”

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Ernie Clark

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...