Members of the MDI football team go through tire drills during practice Aug. 16 in Bar Harbor. Monday marked the first day football and other fall sports teams could begin fall practices under Maine Principals’ Association rules. ISLANDER PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

MDI football team begins practices as crucial season looms

The MDI offense goes through a play as head coach Mark Arnold supervises during high school football practice Aug. 16 in Bar Harbor. The Trojans, who are set to play their first year of eight-man football this season, will open the regular season Sept. 3 against Washington Academy.

BAR HARBOR — The field is no longer quite as spacious.

As members of the Mount Desert Island football team take part in drills these days, there’s not quite as much room for them to roam. Following the Trojans’ move to eight-man football, the team is now practicing on a field that is 40, not 53 1/3, yards wide.

The transition has been one that’s taken some getting used to by the Trojans, who are getting set for what will be their first competitive football game in nearly two years. With less green space, MDI players and coaches are adapting to a field size that’s different from those on which they’ve played their entire lives.

“It’s been a big surprise,” MDI head coach Mark Arnold said. “You’re used to that full-sized field, and that sideline really comes up on you quick. It really changes how you think about the game and run your offense.”

That change is one of just many MDI is facing this season, one that is set to be pivotal for the Trojans and Maine high school football as a whole. As MDI and other teams look to reestablish themselves after last year’s lost campaign, they’re taking their first steps into a vastly different Maine high school football landscape.

Nearly 22 months have passed since MDI’s last football game, a 28-18 loss to Belfast on Oct. 25, 2019, in Bar Harbor. That game concluded a 1-7 campaign in which the Trojans, who had initially planned to participate in Maine’s inaugural season of eight-man football, instead remained in Class C and played a schedule consisting primarily of their traditional Big 11 Conference opponents.

Shortly following the 2019 season, though, MDI officially announced plans to join the eight-man ranks in 2020. With the pandemic forcing the cancellation of last year’s Maine high school football season, the Trojans are now juggling a return to the field after a long hiatus with learning a brand-new form of the game in 2021.

Fortunately for MDI, the team is far from the only one in such a position ahead of the new season. Six of the Trojans’ seven regular season opponents are also new to the eight-man level, which has grown from 10 teams in 2019 to 26 this year.

“You have a lot of teams out there that are right in that same spot as us,” Arnold said. “It’s new to us, but our team is excited to be out here and to be learning this new form of football. We feel really good about that, and I think we’re going to have the right guys for what this new style of play is.”

Such proper personnel fits will be essential at the eight-man level, where the combination of fewer players on the field and the aforementioned smaller gridiron size have forced coaches to employ vastly different schemes. Many traditional high school football strategies will therefore be tougher for teams to incorporate under the new format.

The Mount Desert Island football team goes through kickoff drills during practice Aug. 16 in Bar Harbor. The 2021 season is set to be a pivotal one for MDI and other Maine teams, which are navigating a changing football landscape and looking to make up for lost time after last year’s canceled campaign.

“If you’re an option team, and the ball is on the hash on this field, it would be almost impossible to run a true option offense into the boundary,” Arnold said. “I think, for that reason, I wouldn’t expect to see many option football teams for eight-man. You just don’t have that space.”

Numbers-wise, the switch to eight-man football has MDI in good shape. Whereas the Trojans were put in a difficult spot two years ago after injuries whittled down their roster size toward the end of the season, playing a smaller code of the game will allow the team more breathing room.

“When you’re at 11-man with our numbers, you have to play a lot of kids both ways, and that means putting in some players who just aren’t physically prepared to do that,” Arnold said. “If you have a freshman or a sophomore, it’s nice to be able to get them on the field and say, ‘Hey, he’s not going to have to play both offense and defense.’”

MDI will get a preview of two of its 2021 opponents at 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23, when it conducts a controlled scrimmage with Ellsworth/Sumner and Washington Academy at 5 p.m. at Ellsworth High School. The Trojans will then face Mattanawcook Academy in a preseason game at 7 next Friday, Aug. 27, in Bar Harbor.

Then, on Sept. 3, MDI will play its first official eight-man game when it faces Washington Academy at 7 p.m. in East Machias. The first game of the eight-man era will mean even more for the Trojans after the challenges of the past year.

“It was really hard last year with just not being able to play and how tough that was on our kids, especially our seniors,” Arnold said. “I think we’ve gotten our timing down, and our kids are coming with good attitudes every day and working hard. We’re ready to see what we can do.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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