ROCKPORT, Maine — Maine high school football will be comprised of four classes for the first time since 1986 next fall after a four-year effort to expand the ranks from its current three-class structure gained final approval Thursday from the general membership of the Maine Principals’ Association.

The vote was held during the MPA’s annual spring conference at the Samoset Resort.

“We’ve really done our due diligence,” said South Portland athletic administrator Todd Livingston, chair of the MPA’s Football Committee. “We’ve put a lot of time into this. There’s been a lot of communication back and forth, and we really looked at different parts of this right down to the eleventh hour.”

Also approved was the biennial reclassification of schools in all sports, an effort that spawned only minor changes, as well as the addition of a New England qualifying meet in high school wrestling.

The four-class football format, which has been in the development stages since 2010, is designed to address the gradually growing number of varsity programs statewide — 76 schools are slated to field varsity teams for the 2013 season.

It also seeks to address competitive issues involving some struggling programs by reducing the number of students between the largest and smallest schools in each class.

“Certainly a lot of discussion went in it,” said Mike Bisson, athletic administrator at Hampden Academy and chair of the MPA’s football committee during much of its time spent on the issue. “We didn’t rush into it, and I think we were pretty thorough and pretty transparent.

“Some people may be critical of where a school is placed, but it wasn’t because a lack of thought was put into it.”

The four-class format also takes into account the current southerly population trend in Maine.

In Class A, for example, Portland High School, Deering of Portland, Cheverus of Portland and Windham High School all have been shifted to Eastern Maine as part of an eight-team division with Lewiston, Edward Little of Auburn, Oxford Hills of South Paris and Bangor, the lone Class A football program remaining north of Augusta.

Eight other schools — Thornton Academy of Saco, Bonny Eagle of Standish, Sanford, Scarborough, Massabesic of Waterboro, Noble of North Berwick, South Portland and Biddeford — will comprise Western Maine Class A.

“Bangor supports what the MPA has done for football because it’s good for football,” said Bangor athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine. “We’ve had a great experience in the Pine Tree Conference; we’ve liked being there and we’ve had great competition there for more than 20 years.

“But we’re also looking forward to our new schedule. We understand where our enrollment places us, and we want to do the best thing for football and for the kids.”

The two Class A divisions are considering an eight-game regular-season schedule involving seven games for each team within its division and one crossover game against a team from the other division, leading to six-team playoff formats in both Eastern and Western Maine.

Another significant change involves former Class A schools Lawrence of Fairfield — the two-time defending Eastern Maine champion — along with Messalonskee of Oakland, Cony of Augusta, Brunswick and Skowhegan dropping by enrollment to Eastern B to join Brewer, Gardiner, Hampden Academy and reigning Class B state champion Mt. Blue of Farmington in a new nine-team division.

In fact, all four Eastern Maine Class A semifinalists last fall — Lawrence, Brunswick, Cony and Messalonskee — will compete in Eastern B next season.

“That league has been termed the NFC East,” joked Bisson.

Officials from schools in that division have developed a draft schedule for the coming season that could include seven games within the division and a crossover game against an opponent from the 11-team Western B division leading to a six-team playoff, though the final schedule is unlikely to be approved until later this spring.

Three programs — Nokomis of Newport, Camden Hills of Rockport and Ellsworth-Sumner — will be ineligible for postseason play next fall under the new format.

Nokomis and Camden Hills, Class B teams by enrollment, were granted the chance to play in Eastern C in efforts to boost their struggling programs. Ellsworth-Sumner, which joined the varsity ranks last fall, remains in its developmental phase and will be allowed in the smallest-school class — now Class D — for two more seasons despite being a Class B program by enrollment.

The four-class football plan also provides for two 10-team divisions in both Classes C and D.

The reclassification effort for other sports included just modest changes, including Erskine Academy of South China moving from Class A to Class B and Washington Academy of East Machias shifting from Class B to Class C.

The approval of a New England championship qualifying meet in high school wrestling will allow all wrestlers who qualify for the state meet in Classes A, B and C each year to contend on the mat for the right to advance to the New Englands.

The past practice has advanced the individual state champions in each weight division of each class advanced to the New England meet automatically.

The New England qualifying meet, which would be held in mid- to late February, also will address a current time gap of as much as a month between Maine’s state meet and the New England championships, which typically are held on the first weekend of March.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...