By: Ernie Clark
HOULTON, Maine — Anthony Bonilla already has experienced the intensity of playing varsity football. Now he’s looking forward to sharing that feeling with his teammates at Houlton High School beginning this fall.
“I think it will be pretty amazing,” said Bonilla, a junior at Houlton who played football as a freshman and sophomore at Wells High School. “Varsity football finally coming to Houlton is going to be very exciting for the players.”
The current incarnation of high school-level football in Houlton began in 2006 when a team based in the shiretown joined the eight-player, nonschool-affiliated Aroostook Football League. A subsequent move toward joining the Maine Principals’ Association-sanctioned 11-player varsity ranks began two years ago.
Under MPA rules, a new program wanting to compete in varsity football must complete two seasons of developmental play before seeking varsity status. The Shiretowners fulfilled that prerequisite by facing subvarsity competition in 2012 and 2013 before consulting with MPA officials about moving up to varsity competition this fall.
“The kids are excited,” said Houlton head coach Brian Reynolds. “It was kind of like Christmas when everybody found out.”
When the Shiretowners begin play this fall, it won’t mark the first time the school has fielded a team in the sport.
According to www.houltonshirefootball.com, Houlton High School fielded a football team during the first half of the 20th century until after World War II, when the agricultural workforce became depleted and the student population took up many of those duties. Because the annual harvest and football season coincided in the fall, there weren’t enough players available to maintain the sport and the football program at Houlton High School was ended in 1950.
The new Shiretowners are expected to join the Eastern Maine Class D Little Ten Conference, and LTC officials are believed to be developing a schedule that would accommodate Houlton in what likely would be an 11-team league for the 2014 season.
“We have 10 or 12 seniors coming back this fall, and the way it was when we left the Aroostook Football League was that in two years they would be able to play MPA football,” said Reynolds. “I felt like it had to happen for us this year because I really felt interest was going to start to wane a bit if we didn’t make the move now.”
Houlton compiled a 12-4 record during its two years against subvarsity foes, playing all but one of those games on the road.
Bonilla, for one, is aware that varsity competition will be much fiercer than subvarsity play.
“I’ve told the guys that this is a very competitive division,” said Bonilla, a 6-foot-1-inch, 300-pound offensive and defensive lineman.
Yet the upgrade in the opposition is a small price to pay for the chance to play varsity football and at some point compete for top honors.
“We lost some kids when we made the switch from the Aroostook Football League because they weren’t competing for a championship anymore, and with the MPA model for development it was hard to get games up here,” Reynolds said. “It was getting to the point where we had upperclassmen playing against freshmen and sophomores and they felt they should be playing against kids their own age.
“We did that for two years, and now the kids want to have the chance to play for something.”
Houlton finished the 2013 season with 22 players. But with only two of those players graduating this spring, a large class of incoming freshmen expected and the chance to compete at the varsity level, Reynolds is optimistic the Shiretowners can develop a roster ranging between 30 and 40 players.
“I know of kids who dropped out of football because it wasn’t a varsity sport,” said Reynolds. “But getting the chance to compete in MPA football legitimizes this for the kids.”
One key partner in the development of the privately funded Houlton interscholastic football program has been the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, which provided $30,000 in seed money two years ago and also is host to the team’s home field.
The field, used by the Shiretowners for the first time last fall, was funded in great part by $600,000 in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds made available to the Maliseets through the Indian Community Development Block Grant Program for construction of football and baseball fields and an athletic track.
That facility is expected to have lights available this fall so Houlton may play home games at night.
Other funding for the team is generated by the Houlton Football Association boosters group through a plan modeled after the Hockey 2000 effort that was instrumental in bringing the Houlton-Hodgdon varsity hockey program into existence.
“We’ve got most of the equipment, the field is beautiful, and the kids are raring to go,” said Houlton High School athletic administrator Bruce Nason.