Sidelines: More Maine high school football programs discover beauty of Friday night lights

Lawrence High School football fans begin to line the home end zone prior to a season-opening game against Skowhegan on Sept. 2 at Keyes Field in Fairfield. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Ryan Snell has been coaching the Medomak Valley football team since it formed a varsity squad in 2015 — but he’s never experienced an atmosphere like the one he did last Friday night.

There’s as much energy as ever around Medomak Valley football, which is in just its seventh season of varsity play. The 2-0 Panthers were fresh off a 40-0 drubbing of Winslow that established them as one of the premier players in Class C North this season, and the atmosphere under the lights for the team’s homecoming game against Nokomis was electric.

Fans lined up long ahead of kickoff to enter the stadium with the queue stretching all the way from the entrance to the high school itself. For a Medomak team that switches off between Friday night and Saturday afternoon games throughout the year, the scene in Waldoboro only confirmed to Snell the superiority of the former.

“We don’t have our own lights, but we rent construction lights and get some of the local businesses here to sponsor it so that we can do two or three night games a year,” said Snell, whose team beat Nokomis 35-0 to start 3-0 for the first time since the program’s inaugural season in 2015. “You just get a lot more people crowd-wise on a Friday night, and this past Friday, it was just phenomenal.”

More and more teams throughout the state that have traditionally opted for Saturday games have made similar swings towards Friday night contests over the past few years. The reason why is simple: High school football is meant to be played under the glow of Friday night lights.

Don’t get me wrong: Football is special in just about any capacity. I’ve attended countless high school games in Minnesota, Missouri, Maryland and Maine; I’ve sat in 100,000-seat stadiums in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Knoxville, Tennessee; I’ve been to Lambeau Field and even the old Metrodome in Minneapolis, where you could smell three decades worth of peanut fumes emanating from the walls. No matter the setting, there’s something so unparalleled and grand about the game that no other sport can match.

There’s nothing purer, though, than what happens on high school fields on Friday nights, especially in the tight-knit communities we have here in Maine. There’s a special kind of energy you can sense from the players, coaches, cheerleaders, fans and everyone else in attendance. For a few hours, the fall sky, nighttime breeze and lights illuminating the field make everything, no matter what’s going on around us, seem right in the world.

Locally, Waterville has been one of the schools that’s played its home games solely on Saturdays for the vast majority of program history. Yet, in 2015, the Purple Panthers began a tradition of renting out lights once a year in order to play their annual homecoming games on Fridays. Waterville has done it every season since.

It’s become the best game of the year for now-head coach Isaac LeBlanc, bar none. At a practice Wednesday afternoon, you could feel an extra oomph in the team’s preparation. This Friday night game against Spruce Mountain, after all, brings out the best in the Purple Panthers, who have won it every year dating to 2017.

“I’d be lying to you if I said this game and this experience under the lights wasn’t a little more special,” LeBlanc said. “These guys look forward to this homecoming game we do every year. It’s become quite a tradition for us. It’s a great night for this community and this program.”

While Medomak Valley and Waterville have gone under the lights for select games, there’s another school that has gone exclusively from Saturday to Friday kickoffs. Lisbon, which had lights donated a few years ago, has all four home games this season scheduled for 7 pm Friday starts.

Lisbon fans could have been forgiven if they weren’t thrilled over the idea of ​​breaking with the tradition of Saturday games that had existed in that community since the program’s debut. Lisbon without Saturday afternoon football, after all, is like Stonington without lobster, Freeport without the LL Bean store or Baxter State Park without Katahdin. It just sounds a bit wrong.

sj Lisbon football lights 1

Lisbon and Fryeburg play the first night football game at Lisbon High School on Sept. 9. After years of raising funds, the school approved the installation of lights earlier this year. Sun Journal file photo

Instead, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive when Lisbon played its first-ever game under the Friday night lights two weeks ago. Even players who played Saturday games 60 years ago, such as Dennis Turcotte, expressed happiness with the change. His son, Kevin Turcotte, felt no differently.

“The energy is really high,” Kevin Turcotte, father of current Lisbon player Connor Turcotte, told the Sun Journal. “They’ve been pumped. They heard they got (the lights) their freshman year, and since then, they couldn’t wait. I love it. I like Friday nights better than Saturdays. People are busy nowadays.”

This doesn’t, of course, mean that Saturday games don’t have a place in the current high school football landscape. Saturday afternoons in Winslow are special; Saturday afternoons in Oak Hill are special; Saturday afternoons in Dexter are special. To say those places can (or even should) give up those traditions easily would be misguided.

There are other issues at play here, too. The lights needed to illuminate football fields aren’t cheap, and the struggle to recruit more officials in the state could lead to more game days being staggered. But the effort to play night games says quite a bit about how much Friday night football is valued.

“You get the nature of people being around on a Friday, and the atmosphere is really doubled,” Snell said. “The crowd is more into it, and the players are more excited. They’re on a better schedule after they get out of school and can do what they need to do to come back and play that night. It’s just better for everyone.”

That’s something that more and more teams in Maine that move their games to Friday nights are discovering — and both high school football in the state and the atmosphere that surrounds it will be better off as a result.

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