MACHIAS, Maine — While many high school athletic rivalries may be less intense than they were a generation ago — players from rival teams now often find common ground in offseason travel programs — they don’t totally lack for emotion today, particularly in the spirit of community pride.
So imagine having to play a neighboring rival three or even four times in a single sports season rather than the typical home-and-home meetings.
Such has been life in recent years for members of the Downeast Athletic Conference, located along the northern coast where the population is aging and school enrollment is declining.
That has left a few small schools to largely fend for themselves in scheduling high school sports, spawning a familiarity that hasn’t necessarily led to contempt but has made for less-than-ideal circumstances.
Take the 2013 boys soccer season, when Shead of Eastport and Machias met four times in less than two months. That included three regular-season meetings and a Class D prelim when No. 11 Machias upset No. 6 Shead 5-4.
“When you play somebody three times there’s not too many secrets and there’s been a lot of close games,” said Bob Sinford, then the Machias coach and now president of the DAC. “We’re fortunate it’s worked, but I can understand teams not wanting to do it. We didn’t want to do it.”
The need for DAC schools to play three regular-season matches with each other in such sports as soccer, basketball, baseball and softball in order to fill out their schedules reached a breaking point during the most recent academic year. Four of the league’s surviving five schools sought admittance into other conferences.
“I just think three times a year isn’t good for anyone, personally,” said Shead principal Paul Theriault. “I really think you need to have more diversity in your schedule. I know people love to talk about the travel and the cost surrounding that, but we have to think beyond that.”
In an effort to schedule more games with different opponents, Shead and Woodland high schools have been approved as full members of the Aroostook League beginning with the 2017-18 academic year while Machias and Narraguagus of Harrington will join the Penobscot Valley Conference this fall.
They’ll also remain members of the DAC which, as a surprising result of all the juggling, will emerge perhaps stronger than it has been in a decade.
Machias, Narraguagus, Shead and Woodland will be joined by continuing member Jonesport-Beals. Also joining this fall will be Down East PVC schools Sumner of East Sullivan and Calais, the latter a former longtime DAC staple, with both also holding dual membership in both conferences.
“My rationale at the time was that the DAC was going to dissolve, so to protect programming and opportunities for kids at Machias was why I sought out the PVC,” said Machias principal and athletic administrator Brian Leavitt.
“The willingness of the PVC and the Aroostook League to take these teams in and meet their needs has really solidified the DAC.”
A declining conference
The Downeast Athletic Conference is believed to trace its roots to the early 1970s when consolidation of many of Maine’s smaller schools reshaped the state’s interscholastic sports landscape.
The DAC began as an association of all eight Washington County high schools at the time: Class C programs Calais, Narraguagus and Washington Academy of East Machias and Class D schools Jonesport-Beals, Lubec, Machias, Shead and Woodland.
All represented small, hardworking towns founded in ocean harvests or working the woods, communities where few things have sparked more emotion than the fate of the local high school sports teams — particularly in basketball.
Virtually every DAC school has taken its turn in creating local legends, beginning with Jonesport-Beals’ schoolboy basketball dynasty of the early and mid-1970s and continuing through only slightly less periods of dominance by both the boys and girls programs at Calais.
But as the region’s population aged and student enrollments began to wane, some fragility within the DAC was exposed.
Washington Academy, an independent school that attracts international students, was an enrollment exception. By the mid-2000s the Raiders had moved up to Class B in many sports and added football and swimming, two activities not offered by the DAC.
WA subsequently left the DAC beginning with the 2008-2009 season and joined the Class B-rich Penobscot Valley Conference.
That left Calais and Narraguagus as the lone Class C programs in the DAC, and even they were exploring moves that would provide them additional Class C opponents. That prompted a meeting in early 2008 to discuss the conference’s future.
“It would be a darn shame for us to lose any more [teams],” Shead athletic director Bob Davis said in the Jan. 11, 2008, edition of the Quoddy Tides, an Eastport-based newspaper.
But two years later, Lubec closed its high school, leaving the DAC with just six schools.
Calais was the next to leave the DAC, initially scheduling more out-of-conference Class C games and eventually joining WA in the PVC. The Blue Devils still scheduled some DAC foes, particularly Narraguagus and Woodland, but the conference survivors were tasked to travel great distances to fill their schedules against teams in other parts of the state with similar scheduling dilemmas, such as Temple Academy of Waterville, Highview Christian of Charleston and Greenville.
And three games a season against conference foes became even more common.
“It’s been very difficult, no question,” said Theriault.
Making their moves
Four of those five schools seriously looked elsewhere during the most recent school year, initially with the lone Class C member, Narraguagus, seeking entry into the PVC.
The other schools, fearing dissolution of the conference, also sought out alternatives.
“Narraguagus decided to join the PVC to get more scheduled games, and they play a lot of teams in the PVC anyways,” said Leavitt. “We followed suit with that because honestly at the time I kind of felt like the DAC was falling apart.
“We looked at joining the Aroostook League, too, but when I did the analysis of PVC schools versus Aroostook League schools, most of our games with the exception of Bangor Christian and Greenville are within an hour. We would have to travel nearly two hours to get to any of those [Class D] schools in the Aroostook League. At that point, for us it was a no-brainer.”
As PVC members, Machias and Narraguagus must play 50 percent of their games in a sport against fellow conference members in order to be eligible for postseason championships and awards — but those in-conference games can include each other as well as fellow DAC members Calais and Sumner.
“When you become a member of the PVC you basically are agreeing to the schedule that is given to you, but within that the PVC is very good about individual schools’ requests,” said PVC president Brian Gaw, athletic administrator at Piscataquis Community Secondary School in Guilford.
“There’s no particular number you have to take, for example in an 18-game schedule you might only take six or eight games in the PVC. The only problem, if you see it as a problem, is you don’t qualify for PVC honors, team or individual, unless you play at least 50 percent of your schedule within the PVC.”
Machias will maintain its recent practice of playing Greenville in some sports, but beyond that its longest road trip for a game during the coming school year will be to Bangor Christian.
“The only thing the PVC asked of me was if we would play Greenville, and I said certainly because I want to help the league and we have played them in the past so it wasn’t any big deal for us,” said Leavitt.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation, really. Everything just kind of fell in line.”
Shead and Woodland also explored both the PVC and Aroostook League as possible dual-conference destinations.
Theriault and athletic administrators Josh McGuire of Shead and John Rogers of Woodland met with Aroostook League officials in January, and both schools were accepted this spring as members of that conference beginning in 2017-18.
The one-year delay for full membership stems from the Aroostook League building its schedule every two years, though league president Tim Watt said the conference is working to get Shead and Woodland some games for 2016-17.
The one Downeast Athletic Conference program that hasn’t pursued dual membership is its smallest school, Jonesport-Beals.
“For us, it didn’t really make sense,” said Jonesport-Beals athletic administrator Dan Campbell. “Sure, it would be great to join a conference like that to get the scheduled games and be guaranteed games.
“But for us to go up to Aroostook County, that’s about a four-hour drive every time, and the vast majority of the schools that are closest to us in the PVC are Class C schools and we’re a school of 70 kids, so playing a Class C schedule isn’t going to be very beneficial for us, either.”
Jonesport-Beals will remain in the DAC and draw much of its schedules from those schools. Beyond that, the Royals have established relationships in recent years with island schools Vinalhaven and Islesboro and also have traveled to the likes of Temple Academy in Waterville and Greenville.
“All of us will make sure they have games down here, and after that they’ll probably have to play some of the island teams,” Sinford said.
One sport for which Jonesport-Beals hasn’t had as much difficulty generating schedules is basketball.
“I think it’s because people remember the dynasties when we were super successful before I ever got here. I think that’s part of it,” said Campbell. “With basketball I haven’t had as much of an issue, but with these schools joining other conferences I feel like it maybe is just a matter of time before they aren’t going to be as willing to come and play us. The PVC has to look out for itself, too, so some of these schools we’re playing now might not be able to reserve those spots down the road.”
Solidification of sorts
The trend toward dual conference affiliation among Down East schools has worked both ways, with Calais and Sumner seeking admission to the DAC in order to take advantage of benefits that come from being part of a smaller grouping.
The Penobscot Valley Conference is the state’s largest high school league with more than 30 schools from the northern half of the state representing all four classes — five, counting basketball.
That makes eligibility for postseason awards and recognition a challenging aspiration.
Calais athletic administrator Randy Morrison always appreciated the emphasis the DAC placed on recognizing Down East athletes during his school’s long tenure in the league. He sees his school’s return to that conference as a dual member as a chance to shine another light on standout Blue Devil student-athletes through all-star teams and championship events.
“I didn’t really want the DAC to dissolve because Calais was in it for quite a few years until a couple of years ago,” he said, “and this will help our student-athletes to get recognized more.”
Sumner will join the DAC for the first time, but the Tigers have a history of playing DAC schools.
Morrison said he expects Calais to continue playing several DAC opponents, including those also affiliated with the PVC, and that the dual-membership moves by both his school and Sumner also may be beneficial to other PVC programs.
“It may save some other PVC schools maybe from having to travel down this way, and travel is always a big thing,” he said.
So, too, is DAC pride, an intangible that will continue to exist at least in small part thanks to cooperation among conferences.