BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Practice resumed late Monday afternoon for the Boothbay Region High School football team, a proud program with five state championships to its credit and a regional crown just nine years ago.
The Seahawks routinely have drawn players from one of the smallest enrollments among the state’s football-playing schools but overcame that reality to win its most recent Class C state titles in 2001 and 2002.
But that battle against the numbers game reached crisis proportion at the outset of preseason practices this week, prompting a decision by school officials to drop the team’s varsity status for the 2016 season and instead compete at the club level.
The Boothbay players — who numbered just in the mid-20s after seven to nine upperclassmen from a year ago opted not to return to the program — were told of their fate last Thursday evening.
Of the players who had come out for the team, only a dozen were considered varsity-ready with the balance of the roster consisting of younger prospects lacking in football experience.
“It’s several factors, really,” said Boothbay principal Dan Welch, himself a former high school football player at Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln, “the biggest one being that a significant portion of our returning players chose either not to come back and participate or got hurt over the summer in various athletics or other things.
“It took us from having a squad that was experienced and that we were comfortable having in a varsity game to having less of those players. We were concerned that we might have to ask younger players or less experienced players to go up against players who were just physically more mature and more experienced,” he said.
“The coaching staff had safety concerns,” he added, “and any time we’re concerned about student safety we have to do something so this is the step we’ve taken.”
This marks the latest of several programs that have dropped varsity football either temporarily or permanently in recent years because of low participation rates and in some cases safety concerns, along with Telstar of Bethel, Camden Hills of Rockport, Sacopee Valley of South Hiram and Calais-Woodland.
But one significant difference in Boothbay’s case is that unlike those other programs, the Seahawks boast more than six decades of football tradition in this seaside community.
“It was a hard decision to make,” said Allan Crocker, the school’s athletic administrator. “Football is one of the original sports we had at the school when we formed in 1955 so it wasn’t an easy decision, but you’ve got to put kids’ safety first.”
The loss of veteran players and shrinking roster size have been traced to a variety of reasons, including sport specialization, off-season injuries and a steady decline in enrollment at the school.
Welch anticipates 210 students in grades nine through 12 to show up for the first day of high school, making Boothbay the smallest single-school entity in the state to field what has been a varsity football program. Stearns of Millinocket is smaller at 181 students but is listed in the Maine Principals’ Association football bulletin as a cooperative entry with Schenck of East Millinocket, and their combined enrollment is 315.
Another possible challenge for the Boothbay program is competition from often lucrative summer job opportunities for local high school-age students in the tourism industry or lobstering.
“Our students here are a significant part of our summer work force,” said Welch. “They have outstanding opportunities to make some really good money over the summertime to help them throughout the year, and they serve a valuable purpose for the businesses who need those students to work.
“My daughter works two jobs during the summertime,” he added.
Boothbay head coach Bryan Dionne and his staff joined a growing number of high school football programs statewide in opting for single practice sessions at the outset of August workouts instead of the traditional double sessions, but that didn’t help alter the makeup of the youthful roster.
“Here and in a lot of communities when the kids do have to work and the community needs them to work, double sessions just wasn’t something we could do,” said Welch.
Boothbay had hoped to add to its roster through a cooperative team arrangement with Wiscasset, which does not have its own high school football program.
But after being encouraged by early interest from students at the neighboring high school, no players from Wiscasset turned out for Boothbay’s summer program or for the start of preseason practices last Monday.
“Our coach put a lot of work and a lot of time into it,” said Welch. “He went over there and took some of the boys with him, but I understand it’s hard for kids to pick up a new sport and travel to a new school, so unfortunately we didn’t get any kids from there.”
Crocker is building a schedule for the 2016 season with games against other schools in a similar developmental mode and already scheduled junior varsity games against Campbell Conference rivals.
“We hope this is just a temporary thing,” said Crocker, “and that we’ll be able to safely build it back up through that club schedule where we’re going to be dealing with teams that we feel are more at our level and that may be in a similar situation to us.
“That made more sense to us than to knowingly put our kids in a situation where they could get hurt for no good reason,” he said.
The decision by Boothbay, along with a similar route taken after last season by Telstar, suddenly leaves Class D South with just eight football schools.
Those teams — three-time defending Class D state champion Oak Hill of Wales, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, Winthrop-Monmouth, Lisbon, Dirigo of Dixfield, Maranacook of Readfield, Old Orchard Beach and Traip Academy of Kittery — will play a seven-game regular season over eight weeks with one bye week each, according to Campbell Conference secretary-treasurer Peter Brown.
That will be followed by a three-week, six-team regional playoff tournament, with the top two seeds drawing first-round byes.
Medomak Valley, a second-year varsity program, is ineligible for postseason play until 2017, when it plans to move up to Class C by enrollment.
“It’s unfortunate all the way around, but we’ve got some club games scheduled already and we’re hoping that through that we can build some success,” said Welch. “Our older kids will have a varsity-like experience, they’ll still play football for Boothbay Region High School, and then this also lets our younger players develop at an appropriate level against appropriately matched teams.
“That’s the course for this year, and in the springtime we’ll re-evaluate and look at our numbers again,” he said. “Our goal is to eventually be back to a varsity-level program, but we’ll just have to wait and see how things play out.”