Nokomis High School quarterback Andrew Haining (left) looks to throw the ball in the Class C state football championship game in Portland in this Nov. 17, 2018, photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

AUGUSTA, Maine — Jeremy Marks has been working diligently to rebuild the football program at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport for the past two years.

The Windjammers’ head coach and the school’s director of counseling has had some success.

After Camden Hills canceled the final five games of its 2015 season due to low participation numbers and safety concerns, and then played a junior varsity schedule in 2016, Marks arrived as head coach as the Windjammers returned to varsity status in 2017 in a newly formed Class E designed specifically to help struggling programs become more competitive.

Camden Hills has reached the semifinals of the unofficial Class E playoffs each of the past two seasons, while participation at the high school level has grown from the low 20s at the outset of the 2017 campaign to nearly 30 players beginning this fall.

“It allowed the community to see that football could actually exist here,” Marks said.

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The coach admits his program is not ready to compete consistently in the division dictated by Camden Hills’ enrollment of approximately 690 students, Class B North, which this year was composed of Brunswick, Cony of Augusta, Skowhegan, Lawrence of Fairfield, Mt. Blue of Farmington, Brewer, Hampden Academy and Messalonskee of Oakland.

Now the next step on the Windjammers’ road to rehabilitation may involve a slightly different form of the game after a Maine Principals’ Association panel on Thursday backed the establishment of two divisions of eight-player football beginning next year.

The MPA’s football committee approved the establishment of a large-school division of eight-player football for schools with enrollments of more than 350 students and a small-school division for schools with enrollments of 350 or fewer.

In addition, the panel voted to eliminate the developmental Class E division.

“I think we put a framework around eight-man football,” MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham said. “The decision was made that we will move forward with two divisions of eight-man football because the feedback we’ve already received indicates that there’s interest from some of the larger schools.

“Now, based on the work we’ve done today, we need to hear from those schools that wish to play or where they would like to play.”

Eight-player football is similar to 11-player football minus two linemen and one running back or receiver.

Seventeen states fielded eight-player football programs in 2016, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The eight-player format which seeks to address reduced participation levels, related player safety concerns and competitive imbalance among many of the state’s 78 high school football programs — is still subject to approval by the MPA’s classification and interscholastic management committees before facing final consideration from the organization’s general membership next spring.

But given the proposed elimination of Class E, Marks now sees eight-player football as a viable developmental tool, at least for his program.

“Truth be told, when I came to this meeting I was really trying to lobby to figure out a way to stay in an 11-man format,” he said. “But maybe we can look at eight-man as a way to continue to build that football IQ, build the program and have our student-athletes have healthy, safe experiences so we can continue to grow the roster and get to a place where we can go back to 11-player — kind of what we were looking to do in ‘E.’”

Under the football committee’s plan, all schools with enrollments of 350 or fewer initially will be classified in the eight-player division but will retain the option of remaining as an 11-player football program.

“That’s a local decision,” Burnham said.

Class D 11-player programs then will include those schools with enrollments of 351 to 469 as well as schools of less than 350 that decide not to play eight-player football, with Class C from 470 to 649, Class B from 650 to 844 and Class A with 845 or more students.

Schools with more than 350 students also may elect to compete in the large-school eight-player division, with the ultimate 11-player enrollment cutoffs subject to change based on how many schools opt for the eight-player option.

Among schools reported to be considering a move to eight-player football for at least the next two-year classification cycle are Camden Hills and fellow Class E entries Boothbay, Dirigo of Dixfield, Traip Academy of Kittery, Old Orchard Beach and Telstar of Bethel, as well as Yarmouth and Poland from Class D South and Gray-New Gloucester from Class C South.

Another possible eight-player football school is Greely of Cumberland Center, which finished its most recent year in Class B with fewer than 20 players but instead may be considering joining Falmouth as a cooperative team next fall.

Other candidates could come from the Class D North Little Ten Conference, where six of its 10 member schools Ellsworth, Orono, Stearns of Millinocket, Mount View of Thorndike, Washington Academy of East Machias and Houlton began the 2018 season with 27 or fewer players apiece.

“What basically was decided today was that we can speculate all we want, but now it’s decision time,” Burnham said.

Committee officials plan to send out a survey to all Maine high schools to learn which programs want to maintain 11-player football and which schools want to pursue the eight-player option.

Survey responses will be due back at the MPA offices by Dec. 21.

“It’s been such a viable option in other states; why wouldn’t Maine look at it, and if we can make it viable for competitive balance, rehabilitation of programs, excitement for fans and communities, and on and on the list goes, why would we not try that?” said Dan O’Connell, football coach and athletic administrator at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor as well as the Maine Football Coaches Association’s liaison to the MPA football committee.

“Then the big issue at hand would be how do we deal with what the numbers tell us, and we’ll find that out soon enough.”

Accompanying the survey will be information related to frequently asked questions about the topic such as recommended roster sizes and field dimensions, though final decisions on those matters have not yet received formal endorsements from the football committee.

“I still think we have a lot of work to do regarding education so coaches and administrators can make sound decisions for their communities, but ultimately that’s what it’s going to come down to because every community is different,” O’Connell said.

“I certainly trust all of our football-playing communities to do their due diligence and make the best decisions for them, but at least by starting here we give them options for the future and show them what this might look like so they can make those important decisions,” he said.

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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...