The Maine high school football world numbers 78 programs, but not all are thriving.
Declining participation has combined with competitive imbalance among many teams from schools of similar enrollments in recent years, leaving coaches and administrators searching for answers.
The Maine Principals’ Association football committee has offered some potential help this week, proposing a new developmental class beginning next season designed to help several struggling programs regain varsity status.
During a nearly five-hour meeting in Augusta on Thursday, the panel also recommended updated enrollment cutoffs among the four established classes. If approved, that would result in as many as 14 schools switching classes and/or regions when the new two-year classification cycle begins in the fall.
Among those changes would be a swap in classes for the 2016 Classes C and D state champions, with Class D title holder Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield moving to Class C and “C” state champion Wells dropping to Class D.
Additional work by the football committee is expected to shore up scheduling and playoff formats to accommodate the potential for more regular-season games between teams in North and South divisions of the same class as well as matchups between teams from different classes.
“The committee is coming back in next month to look at playoff qualification that might include encouraging cross-class scheduling to maybe do away with some of the lopsided games and get more competitive balance on the schedule,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham.
“Scheduling really is the issue to put these kids into more competitive games.”
Thursday’s recommendations will be considered by the MPA’s classification committee on Feb. 13, the next of several steps before a final plan heads to the full membership for its approval in late April.
Individual schools also will have the opportunity to appeal their classification placements for the next two-year cycle.
The proposed fifth class would include at least five schools in 2017 — Boothbay, Camden Hills of Rockport, Maranacook of Readfield, Sacopee Valley of South Hiram and Telstar of Bethel. All have varsity histories but with the exception of Maranacook have been playing at a sub-varsity level in hopes of returning to varsity competition.
Maranacook finished 0-7 in Class D South varsity play last fall, and with participation dwindling school officials felt the need for the Black Bears to regroup at a more developmental level.
At least one other school, Old Orchard Beach, may join what the football committee has named Class E, but that has not yet been determined.
“It’s an attempt to assist these schools as they attempt to rebuild,” said Burnham.
Because the proposed Class E schools involved come from two enrollment classifications, the division season will not include a state championship game. Camden Hills (667 students) would be a Class B program by enrollment, while the rest are Class D-level schools with fewer than 400 students.
The hope is that rather than relying on subvarsity opposition to fill out their schedules, as was the case for several of the targeted Class E teams last fall, they can develop a full schedule of games against each other as well as against existing varsity teams looking for more competitive contests.
The proposal calls for the Class E schools to be worth Heal or Crabtree points like teams in the other divisions so that they would be countable games for the non-Class E teams involved.
“The recommendation is to bring that fifth class under the MPA umbrella and allow those teams to schedule games that would count for their opponents,” Burnham said.
The recommended enrollment cutoffs for Classes A, B, C and D during the next two-year classification cycle would place 14 schools in Class A (845-plus students), 17 in Class B (650-844), 21 in Class C (470-649) and 21 in Class D (0-469), depending on whether Old Orchard Beach opts to stay in Class D or move to Class E.
Class A will maintain its two, seven-team divisions.
“I do think what the process has done is shifted things so our largest-(school) class is our smallest, which is probably more a reflection of what’s happening with enrollment,” said Burnham. “And if down the road these (Class E) programs become a little more viable and there’s a proposal to go to a full five-class system, I think that’s in play.”
Joining MCI and Wells in changing classes under the enrollment recommendations are Nokomis of Newport and Gardiner from B North to C North, Mt. Ararat of Topsham from B South to B North, Leavitt of Turner Center, Morse of Bath and York from B South to C South, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro from D South to C North, Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft from C North to D North, Madison-Carrabec from C North to D South, and Spruce Mountain of Jay, Poland and Mountain Valley of Rumford from C South to D South.
Cheverus of Portland and Winslow have indicated that they will petition to move up in class, Winslow from Class D North to Class C North and Cheverus from Class C North to Class A North, where the Stags traditionally have played.