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All aboard! The Bus is here! Will those undefeated occupants manage to keep their seats for another week?
All aboard! The Bus is here! Will those undefeated occupants manage to keep their seats for another week?Jim Venable

With just 19 players on the roster, Manchester-Essex struggled through the 2018 season, eventually forfeiting its final regular-season game to Amesbury along with any chance of competing in the state tournament.

Manchester-Essex coach Jeff Hutton wasn’t sure if he could field a team in 2019 until late July, but not only are his Hornets competing with a healthy 30 rostered players, they’re off to an emphatic 3-0 start.

The Hornets lead a crop of unlikely unbeatens to open the year, as they outscored their opponents, 105-0, heading into their bye week.

“We didn’t want to be the people that let football die,” said Hutton, who is now 23-22 over five-plus seasons at Manchester-Essex. “The administrators gave us as much time as they could before making a decision. But really, it came down to the kids.”

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Hutton said the program received a boost thanks to three new players — Lars Arntsen, Luke Gjerde, and Frank Wood — from Manchester-Essex’s D4 state championship baseball team.

Arnsten, who had only played football at the youth level, has already tallied 170 rushing yards and three touchdowns this season. Gjerde, a starting linebacker and the team’s kicker, rejoined the program along with Wood after both declined to play last season. Quarterback Will Levendusky and tailback AJ Palazolla are also starring after leading the Hornets to a baseball state title.

For senior captain Henry Doane, the infusion of those proven winners may not just save the program this year, but preserve it going forward.

“The baseball guys really helped out because they know what it’s like to win,” said Doane, the Hornets’ sole four-year letterman. “We had to get extra numbers in the summer, they said we needed at least 26. When we got enough it was an awesome feeling. Now I look at those kids [on the youth football team] and they’re looking up to us, it’s something I never expected.”

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After their forfeit to Amesbury, the Hornets managed to rally for three straight victories, including a 38-8 win over Georgetown on Thanksgiving.

Hutton feels the team is riding that momentum into its first season as an independent program, having left the Cape Ann League this offseason.

“As the smallest team in the Cape Ann League for years, we were a little fish in a really big pond,” said Hutton. “Once we started playing against teams with similar sizes as far as participation numbers, the kids started to realize they could compete and it really springboarded this whole thing.”

While some of the unbeaten programs left in Eastern Mass. Are in a familiar position, Winchester is also navigating relatively uncharted waters.

The Sachems are off to their first 4-0 start in over two decades, thanks in part to their own infusion of competitive multi-sport athletes.

Charlie Ward, Jimmy Gibbons, Brandon Lavey, Brady Martin, Sam McDonald, James Lowenstein and Richard and Jeffrey Russo all earned rings with Winchester’s D2 state championship lacrosse team last spring. Now they’re contributing to what nine-year coach Walter Dembowski describes as a culture change.

“With those multi-sport athletes who have had success, we know how hard you have to work to get to those games,” said Dembowski. “That makes practice a little more competitive, which is something we’ve lacked in the past. Every day at practice we blast music and the kids are loud and communicating at a higher level.

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“You see the energy going when a good song is on, and then you see that energy when it makes a difference on Friday nights.”

When Winchester fell behind, 14-7, at Lexington on Sept. 27, Dembowski thought old habits would come home to roost, recalling how his Sachems had allowed 42 points in two of their last three trips to Lexington.

But this game was different, as Winchester posted a shutout over the final 40 minutes while scoring 27 unanswered points.

“From the get-go this year, we didn’t panic when we made mistakes,” said Dembowski. “For us, that’s always been an Achilles heel. We made a mistake and said, ‘Uh oh’ but all of a sudden something happened and they buckled down [against Lexington]. At that point, I thought ‘Okay, they believe in themselves.’”

Extra Points

Wakefield coach John Rafferty, who set a school record with an estimated 2,408 rushing yards in his career and led the Warriors to a state title in 1970, secured his 100th career win as a coach Friday with a 30-7 victory over previously unbeaten Burlington. Rafferty accumulated 95 of those wins at North Andover from 2001-14, and is now in his second season as coach of his alma mater . . . Wilmington snapped a 10-game losing streak dating back to last season with a 33-7 win over Watertown . . . Rockland extended its state-best winning streak to 11 games with a 42-13 rout of visiting Middleborough on Friday night . . . New Bedford continued its impressive undefeated start with a 27-21 win over Barnstable . . . Melrose moved to 5-0 by virtue of a dramatic final drive against rival Stoneham. Chris Cusolito provided the game-winning touchdown run from 3-yards out . . . Billerica scored a key 32-8 MVC Small victory at Dracut, setting up a tilt next Friday against rival Tewksbury with huge implications.

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Nate Weitzer can be reached at nathaniel.weitzer@globe.com.