Oct. 27—Let me take you back to October 2017. Edward Little entered its matchup with Lewiston with an unbeaten record. The Blue Devils were 3-4, but they ended up beating the Red Eddies 41-16. Edward Little took the first seed into the Class A North playoffs and Lewiston was No. 2. Both teams had byes and then lost in the semifinals.
That season ended up not being an omen of the Devils and the Eddies becoming Class A contenders. In 2018, both teams were below .500 heading into the Battle of the Bridge. Edward Little won that game, and then beat Lewiston again the following week in the playoffs. In 2019 and 2021, one of the Blue Devils' two wins each season was over a winless Red Eddies squad.
The 2022 Battle of the Bridge is here, and both programs are having more positive seasons. Lewiston (4-3) will make the playoffs and might have a chance to host a quarterfinal. The Red Eddies (2-6) won't be in the postseason, and I'm sure they would like a redo of the loss to Bangor, but they have won two games (their first since the 2018 playoff win over Lewiston) and almost beat Bonny Eagle in Week 4.
So, what do you make of the Blue Devils' and the Red Eddies' seasons? And what do the improvements of 2022 signify about the future of the two programs?
Both teams have already exceeded my expectations of what they would be and what they would do in 2022. Both programs welcomed new coaches, which often means growing pains. But these two teams simply grew.
I think the additions of new head coaches on both sides of the Androscoggin River gave each program a chance to hit the reset button. There was some self-reflection by the programs and the athletic departments. When the new coaches were brought in — former player Jason Versey for Lewiston and one-time assistant Rick Kramer for Edward Little — there was talk of culture changes. Granted, there's almost always talk of culture change when a new coach is brought in, but these coaches have seemingly delivered.
There's a positive vibe in the air on the gridirons around the Great Falls, and Versey and Kramer deserve a lot of credit for that. Now the hard part is to keep that positivity going and finding a way to continue that growth.
Culture is a tricky thing that almost always has a direct correlation to win-loss records, and, truthfully, players have the most to do with wins and losses.
Therefore, one of the most important parts of creating culture is combining talent with dedication and accountability (in practices, the weight room and even the classroom) while also making the experience enjoyable for players beyond wins and losses. That will entice more players to stick around and inspire more students to join the team.
Kramer and Versey shouldn't have to start over on the foundation they've established next season because most of the players should be back in 2023. Lewiston has 12 seniors on its roster and Edward Little has nine — the Class of 2023 accounts for less than 25% of each team. (However, some of seniors will be tough to replace next year, including Lewiston playmakers Eli Bigelow, Farid Muhammed-Aceto and Jibril Holloman, and Edward Little QB Tate Morse).
These are two of the biggest schools in the state we're talking about, so they have good-sized student bodies to recruit from as they try to grow those rosters even more. And winning is a great recruiting tool.
Kramer reminded me this week that Edward Little's seniors haven't beaten Lewiston during their high school careers. There's some motivation there on the Auburn side of the river. And you know those kids talk in school to their friends. It's not fun to lose to your rival, so that could be a recruiting tool to try and regain or retain bragging rights.
The success of these programs, and the seeds that have been planted this season, might see a trickle-down effect to the youth and middle schools programs, and that's where program strength and sustainability live. Friday night will be about the present and past of the rivalry, but it could play a role in the future as well.
Both programs have a few sources of hope that they aren't stuck in the bottom half of Class A. The first is Lewiston's 39-7 win over Scarborough and the way Edward Little played against Bonny Eagle. The Red Storm and the Scots are traditional contenders who have won state titles in the past five years. The chasm between the Devils and Eddies isn't as wide as it seemed two months ago.
The other reason for hope is Oxford Hills' transformation from a program that struggled to make the postseason into one of the top teams in the state. The main thing Edward Little and Lewiston can learn from the Vikings is patience. It might take more than a few seasons to become a Class A contender. It took Oxford Hills several years. There will be frustrating losses, and possibly even discouraging seasons, but it's important to not let those things derail the progress that has been made.