On Saturday, the Orono Red Riots defeated the reigning champion Old Orchard Beach Seagulls 46-18 in the 8-man Small state title game, capping off a perfect 11-0 campaign for the boys in maroon.
Commanding the Little Ten Conference’s No. 1 offense (51.3 points scored; 379 yards per game) and No. 1 defense (14 points allowed; 138.4 yards per game), Orono finally ended a brutal, 29-year football championship drought — just two years after going 0-8.
“It is unbelievable,” Orono head coach Bob Sinclair said. “I’m very proud of all of the guys. They’re fierce competitors, and really learned how to support one another.”
The Red Riots’ road to glory all started in the middle of last season, when their passing game suddenly came alive. Led by then-sophomore quarterback Jack Brewer and an athletic receiving corps, Orono turned a 2-3 record to a 7-3 record in the blink of an eye, putting up an average of 55 points per game in that stretch.
Coming from a run-heavy, 11-man football background, Sinclair and his young squad transformed their offensive philosophy, and ended up with the conference’s No. 1 aerial game (44 passing touchdowns; 2,967 yards) that year.
“There was a learning curve,” Sinclair said. “But we had the quarterback, and the athleticism, to do it.”
Unfortunately for Orono, their Cinderella run ended in the state final, up against a powerful Old Orchard team that dominated 46-22. Without a solid running game or developed defensive scheme, the Red Riots “got pushed around,” and realized they had to re-tool if they wanted to usurp Old Orchard.
So over the offseason, Orono’s players hit the weight room — and their coaching staff hit the playbooks — becoming the juggernaut they were this fall.
Preseason, their squad could smell it.
“The storyline last year was our speed, our athletes, my throwing, but people are going to see this year that we can be tough too,” Brewer said. “Everyone here wants a ring, and knows what it takes to get it.”
Come September, Orono was already in dominant form, dispatching Houlton 57-6, Stearns 30-8 and Ellsworth 64-6 in Weeks 1 through 3. The Red Riots’ first true test came against undefeated Bucksport in Week 4 at home, who they sent packing 44-18 despite a strong first half performance from the Golden Bucks.
It was the closest Orono would come to a loss all regular season.
Led by senior linebacker Caden Gray, junior cornerback Brady Maheu and “one-man wrecking crew” junior defensive end Brady Grant, Orono’s defense didn’t give up more than two touchdowns in a game for the next month-and-a-half. On the ground, senior Ben “Diesel” Francis and sophomore Kason Bagley (759 yards, 63 carries, 11 TDs combined in regular season) paced Orono’s ground game, behind the strong and intelligent blocking of seniors Ashton Duran, Graham Higgins and Cooper Sawyer.
Moreover, the Red Riots still hadn’t pulled out their trump card, waiting for the perfect time to reveal it.
Flash forward to the state title game — up against a physical Seagull defense that had allowed only 40 points all year — Orono finally debuted their secret Raven offense, turning the tables on the favorites.
Featuring two tight ends and an H-back, the Red Riots’ ground game totally overpowered Old Orchard at the line of scrimmage, and provided that X-factor Orono was lacking one year ago.
“We were so predictable last year,” Sinclair said. “Old Orchard wasn’t ready for our O-line — our best kept secret — this time.”
In the first half, the Red Riots built a 20-6 lead with their passing attack, as Brewer (40 TD, 0 INT, 2,402 yards) hit standout receivers junior Will Francis (21 TDs, 1,070 yards) and senior Pierce Walston (8 TDs, 587 yards) for Orono’s first two scores.
With a comfortable lead in the second, Orono ran out the clock and buried Old Orchard’s comeback hopes with their new running scheme. Senior duo Ben Francis and Pierce Walston did the honors for Orono, combining for 259 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the night.
After the game, the Red Riots celebrated with a bus tour through Orono, led by the Orono Police and Fire Departments.
“It was a heck of a lot of fun, there was an unbelievable amount of people there,” Sinclair said with a laugh. “The gold ball even made its way to Buffalo Wild Wings.”