NHIAA D-VI Football Championship: Top seed Mascoma has come a long way
Ray Kershaw was wrong.
He told school officials he may need five years to turn Mascoma Valley High School's football program around.
It took him only three.
The Royals were an unlikely choice to play for a state title before the season, but that's exactly what they will be doing Saturday afternoon at 1 when they play Franklin High in the Division VI championship game.
Top-seeded Mascoma (8-2) earned the right to host the game, but concerns about the weather led the NHIAA to shift the game from Canaan to Hanover High.
The Royals are trying to end the season the same way they began it: with a win over No. 2 Franklin (8-2).
Franklin is gunning for its fourth title; its first since 2008. The Golden Tornadoes are in the championship game for the fourth time in eight years. They know the routine well.
The Royals? Well, they're a different story.
Mascoma is in its fifth year of fielding a football team. Most of that time has been a struggle on and off the field. The program has lacked and players. And wins.
The Royals had lost 18 straight games when Kershaw, who had been an assistant coach at Proctor Academy, became the coach in the summer after the team's second season. There were 12 players in the program at the time and Kershaw said school officials told him they may discontinue the program if the numbers didn't improve. Kershaw took the challenge.
"I saw how bad things were going and I thought I could help them turn things around," Kershaw said.
There were 21 players on the roster that first season under Kershaw. The losing streak ended in the team's sixth game. Not an immediate turnaround, but it was progress. That's how Kershaw saw it.
"After I first met with the kids, I knew we were going to be all right," Kershaw said. "I saw it in their eyes."
Even so, this year's success seems a bit surprising. After all, the Royals were 2-7 last year and the roster didn't change. Kershaw said the players just know the team's double-wing offense better, have been more dedicated to working in the weight room during the off season and they're a year more experienced.
"It's all of that," Kershaw said.
The first sign that things were changing came quickly when the Royals beat the Golden Tornadoes, 26-13, in the first game of the season. It was their first win over Franklin; they had lost by a combined score of 175-16 to the Golden Tornadoes the previous three seasons.
Kershaw said another turning point came after the team's fourth game, a 21-14 loss to Newport that left them at 2-2. Kershaw said the team would have crumbled in previous years; this year's team responded with six straight wins, including last week's 42-6 win over Newfound Regional of Bristol in the semifinals.
Kershaw credits the addition of his son Josh as offensive line coach for helping the double-wing take off. The Royals, who scored just 28 points during a five-game losing streak to end last season, have averaged 34.5 points per game this season.
Three players - seniors John Daley, Steven Griswold and Chris Sanborn - from the 12 who were on the team when Kershaw took over are still with the program. They were on the team that lost by 71 points to Franklin. Kershaw said there was one team they and their teammates wanted to play when they got to the playoffs.
"Franklin," Kershaw said. "They don't want it any other way."