ROCKPORT, Maine — Chris Young has worked on the front lines of the battle among Maine’s smallest high school basketball programs to remain competitive against ever-increasing odds.
The assistant principal and athletic administrator from tiny East Grand School in Danforth has watched his teams struggle to keep pace as larger schools with dwindling enrollments have joined them in Eastern Maine Class D ranks — though with still enough students in most cases to overwhelm the traditionally smaller schools in the quest for postseason glory.
The Vikings’ girls varsity basketball team, for example, made its first tournament appearance in Bangor in 15 years last winter.
“The original Class D schools have felt like other schools were getting pushed down to Class D because they were losing enrollment,” said Young, whose school numbers about 55 students in grades 9-12.
“Well, we were losing enrollment as well, so it just kept getting less equitable for those original Class D schools to be competitive and have access to championships.”
Such access may have increased for those smallest of programs Thursday when the general membership of the Maine Principals’ Association approved expanding the state’s high school basketball ranks from four to five classes beginning next winter.
“I think I’ve sent an email every year for the last five years to [the Maine Principals’ Association] or the Classification Committee,” said Young. “For our school and other small schools, especially in Eastern Maine, this is going to make a big difference.”
While turnout for the meeting that opened the Maine Principals’ Association’s annual spring conference at the Samoset Resort was heavier than normal in anticipation of a close vote, that never materialized.
Members approved the five-class concept 67-29 just moments after overwhelmingly rejecting an amendment that would have delayed implementation of a five-class proposal for a year.
“I was surprised to see such a wide margin of support for it but I was glad to see it,” said Bunky Dow, activities director at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor and chair of the Maine Principals’ Association Classification Committee that worked for nearly two years to develop the proposal.
“I think this is the right thing for kids from Fort Kent to Traip Academy in Kittery, and I think it’s the right thing for high school basketball,” he said.
The five-class format was developed largely to address changing demographics throughout Maine, including a shrinking student base and a southward population migration.
It creates a new Class AA for the state’s largest schools while reducing both the number of teams in Classes A, B, C and D and the student differential between the largest and smallest schools in each class.
Class AA will have two regional divisions of schools with enrollments of 824 students or more beginning next winter, with Class A for schools with between 545 and 823 students, Class B for schools with between 325 and 544 students, Class C for schools with between 131 and 324 students and Class D for schools with 0 to 130 students.
Enrollments for the 2014-15 basketball season were Class A (705-plus), Class B (425-704), Class C (190-424) and Class D (0-189).
The five-class format was one of several proposals developed by the Classification Committee that gained final approval from the general membership.
The following proposals were approved without discussion:
— Increasing the maximum number of students of a given gender for high schools to use eighth-graders to fill out a sports team from 40 to 60.
— Allowing for cooperative teams in all sports.
— Reducing the Heal point differential per class from five points to two points in an effort to boost cross-class competition during the regular season.
“I think certainly this was a very historic day for high school athletics in Maine,” said Gary Stevens, athletic administrator at the state’s largest high school, Thornton Academy of Saco. “There were a whole host of issues discussed today, and they’re all very much interrelated.
“Looking at the big picture, I think having five classes certainly serves the vast majority of the schools in this state very well, particularly those smaller schools like the community schools in Aroostook County where people are so passionate about basketball. I think it gives those small schools a real competitive opportunity in the tournament against schools where the disparity of enrollments won’t be as great as it’s been more recently,” he said.
The five-class proposal generated only a moderate amount of debate before the vote took place, barely more than an ensuing discussion about enrollment cutoff levels for Nordic skiing.
Supporters echoed Young’s sentiments while opponents — in some cases from the smallest schools in the new classifications — largely conceded the inevitability of the five-class plan but urged a one-year delay in its implementation.
Houlton High School Principal Marty Bouchard suggested it might be better to wait a year to prepare for potential scheduling and financial issues, the latter given that most communities are deep into the process of developing school budgets for the 2015-16 academic year.
“All the reasons to move toward it are valid and well supported,” he said, “but what I worry about sometimes is that you hear time and time again that we have something very special in Maine with the way basketball is run and the turnout at the tournament, and I want to make sure we don’t lose the essence of what we have here that many people perceive as great.”
Scheduling, both for regular-season games and tournament play, now will become the focus of basketball attention both within the Maine Principals’ Association and conferences around the state.
Maine Principals’ Association Executive Director Dick Durost said no formal talks have been held yet about next year’s basketball tournament, but now that the five-class proposal has been approved and an additional class will have to be accommodated for postseason play, basketball tournament officials are set to meet May 8.
Meanwhile, conferences are in varying stages of creating their regular-season schedules for the 2015-16 season.
Stevens said officials of the Southwestern Maine Activities Association, which includes most of the Class AA schools, have had informal scheduling discussions that include a likely constitutional change that would allow it to schedule games against the four nonmember Class AA North schools — Bangor, Edward Little of Auburn, Lewiston and Oxford Hills.
“We have some challenges ahead,” said Stevens. “We have to figure out the tournament format and where we’re going to place the tournament regions, but we have good principals and athletic directors around the state that can make sound decisions based on data, and I think they will accomplish that.”
“The conversation among athletic directors in the state was that we knew this was going to come. The question was whether it would be today or April 2016, and I think people realized that the day was today.”