Playmaking depth key to Foxcroft’s title quest
DOVER-FOXCROFT — The chance for one more week of football practice, often on a snow-covered field under the lights as a concession to the early evenings of late autumn, is a rite of privilege reserved for only the final few surviving high school teams in northern Maine each year.
As the undefeated Foxcroft Academy football team worked out Monday evening in advance of a snowstorm that left Oakes Field with even more of a winter’s blanket by Tuesday morning, Nov. 13, 10th-year head coach Danny White and his troops did so knowing the formidable task that awaits them.
Friday’s 7 p.m. Class D state championship game at the University of Maine in Orono matches the 10-0 Ponies against South regional champion Wells, which not only is 11-0 this year but also the winner of its past 27 games — a streak that includes the Warriors’ 44-0 victory over Mount Desert Island in the 2016 Class C state final and continued with their 48-0 shutout of Foxcroft in last November’s Class D championship contest at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
As the Ponies celebrated their 43-26 victory over Bucksport in the Class D North Little Ten Conference title game at Hampden Academy on Saturday evening, they already were looking forward to Monday night under the lights back at home.
“We’re just going to do all we can this week,” said Foxcroft senior wide receiver and defensive back Hyatt Smith. “We’re going to go as hard as we can at practice to make sure we’re prepared to the fullest for Wells.”
While Wells’ talent and momentum will provide the Ponies a major challenge, Foxcroft will present a fairly unique consideration that the Warriors will have to address.
Many championship-caliber high school football programs in Maine are led by a singular standout, but the Ponies’ ability to advance their cause on the scoreboard each week — the team averages 40.8 points per game — truly is a case of power in numbers.
Senior Michaleb Niles leads Foxcroft in rushing with 907 yards and 10 touchdowns on 114 carries, and he is one of four Ponies to have rushed for at least 330 yards each.
Niles, senior Jeremy Richard (39 carries, 462 yards, 10 TDs), sophomore Logan Martin (38-332, 5 TDs) and senior quarterback Matt Spooner (55-353, 3 TDs) have combined for 2,054 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground alone this fall behind a line anchored by seniors Eli Bickford, Caleb Ladd and Ryan Vienneau.
“It definitely keeps the defense on their toes,” Spooner said. “It’s great that we have that versatility, and up front the guys on the line really battle in the trenches.”
Add to that Spooner’s passing (69 of 121, 1,239 yards with 21 TDs and two interceptions) to the likes of Smith (22 catches, 383 yards and six receiving TDs), Martin (17-352, 8 TDs) and Richard (10-188, 3 TDs), and the Ponies give any defensive coordinator a lot to think about.
“We try to be as balanced as we can because we’ve got a lot of good kids,” White said. “We want to use them, and we want to use them in space.”
Foxcroft’s backs and receivers reflect depth and diversity with Niles the more straight-ahead runner, Richard and Martin providing speed and quickness, and Smith likely the most athletic of the group.
Smith led the LTC in punting this fall, returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown in the Ponies’ 41-0 semifinal win over Washington Academy of East Machias and has been a stopper defensively in the secondary with four regular-season interceptions in addition to his receiving work often outside the hash marks.
But one of his biggest contributions to his team’s success may be one of sacrifice because while his offensive touches are limited, he typically draws the attention of one of the opposing team’s top defenders because of his big-play receiving capability.
“What he does is that No. 11 [Tyson Gray] might be Bucksport’s best defensive player and Hyatt keeps him out of the box,” White said. “So instead of a dozen tackles [Gray] has three and that’s huge, so Hyatt is impacting the offense that way and he understands that.”
While Smith has just three rushing attempts for 8 yards this season, his value to Foxcroft’s ground-gaining efforts is much more significant.
“We use me to kind of draw some good defenders away from what we’re trying to do,” Smith said. “Having me split out wide and have their best defender come out and guard me, that really helps us with the run game.”
Foxcroft will enter Friday night’s game as the clear underdog against Wells as it pursues its first state championship since capturing the Class C crown in 2012, but the Ponies hope their depth of playmakers will be a great equalizer.
“We’re definitely excited,” Spooner said. “We’re going to go out and work our tails off this week, and we’ll be ready to go out there at UMaine on Friday.”