Orono Red Riots at football practice Thursday afternoon.

The Orono High School football team was back at practice late Thursday afternoon, charged with a new goal for the 2019 season — to become the foundation for the program’s return to varsity play in 2020.

School officials told the team after Wednesday’s practice that the Red Riots’ 2019 varsity schedule had been canceled due to safety concerns related to low numbers and a lack of linemen.

Only 14 players turned out for the start of preseason practices, and while the roster eventually grew to as many as 18, six were freshmen.

“We were hoping that we’d come into the season a little stronger in terms of numbers, but not only was it a numbers situation, but it was a personnel matter,” Orono athletic administrator Mike Archer said.

He said having only two experienced linemen also created the potential for significant physical mismatches.

Orono on Thursday announced a seven-game junior varsity schedule and plans next fall to integrate a large contingent of current eighth-grade players in the system and resume 11-player varsity competition in the Class D North Little Ten Conference.

Had Orono started its varsity schedule and not been able to complete it, the program would have been ineligible to resume varsity competition for two more years, according to Maine Principals’ Association rules.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

“We think this gives our kids the best chance to play some competitive football over the course of this season and also retain our status for a varsity schedule in 2020,” Archer said.

Orono’s dilemma should have come as no surprise to those familiar with the program, which went winless in each of the past two varsity seasons. The student-athletes who are now at the high school had been unable to play full football schedules, or had seasons canceled, at the younger levels because of low numbers.

“This three-year cycle we’ve had in high school was the same thing we dealt with in middle school,” Archer said.

Even Orono’s 2016 team led by Keenan Collett and Jackson Coutts, which finished the regular season 8-1 and reached the LTC semifinals, fielded just 27 players.

Last fall, the Red Riots were unable to finish all of their games due to safety concerns.

In one instance, Orono dressed 13 players for a game at Mount View of Thorndike. That contest started with running time during the first half — a rule that is supposed to be applied only after halftime when one team leads by at least 35 points — and was halted with 1:14 left in the fourth quarter and Mount View leading 28-0.

“When we were at the point of asking kids to play out of position just to keep this season going and risking their safety, we said, ‘no way, we’re not going to do that,’” Archer said, admitting last year’s dynamics made officials nervous this season.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

“To think we could start our season with 16 or 17 kids and endure a seven-week schedule, we’d be kidding ourselves. This is 100 percent the right decision.”

Orono officials began discussing the football program’s immediate future shortly after last season ended and talks were related to the proposed eight-player division the MPA eventually approved for this fall.

Orono opted not to pursue that option for several reasons, among them cutting ties with longtime LTC rivals, travel demands and the roster issues.

“I can tell you, we don’t have the personnel this year to even play eight-man [varsity football],” Archer said.

Orono also decided not to pursue a cooperative team entry with neighboring Old Town, with whom it already has a successful joint ice hockey program. Their enrollments likely would have put such a team in Class B.

Still, officials had held out hope for 2019.

“We thought we would have 23 to 25 players, which are not great numbers but they’re numbers we’ve had in the past,” Archer said. “We thought that between recruiting and kids coming in from the outside communities we could make it work, we could piece it together and get by.

“And at a school like Orono you have to feel the responsibility because of the tradition of the program.”

Orono is an LTC charter member and defeated Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln in the conference’s first official game Sept. 8, 1951.

The Red Riots went on to become one of the state’s top football programs regardless of class, winning numerous conference and state championships and compiling a 48-game winning streak between 1977 and 1982 that included five consecutive undefeated seasons.

Orono captured its most recent state title in 1994 but has remained largely competitive since then with 10 regular seasons of .500 or better between 2004 and 2016.

Two straight winless seasons with inexperienced rosters changed everything.

“Last year we spent a lot of time calling other teams [prior to games] and telling them our situation,” Archer said. “It was almost like we were dictating the way they should play, and that’s just not right. It’s not a good feeling.”

One byproduct of Orono’s decision is that its seven scheduled varsity opponents suddenly have open dates on their slates.

Two teams, Old Town and Washington Academy of East Machias, now have two byes each and will play only six regular-season games. Class C North and the LTC both had to build in byes because of the odd number of teams in each division.

Class C North has 11 teams and the LTC is down to eight.

“We realize the inconvenience this creates,” said Archer, who added that he’ll work with Class C North official Bunky Dow, activities director at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor, in an attempt to help fill some of the scheduling gaps.

In the meantime, Orono players are back practicing for a subvarsity football season they hope represents a reboot for present and future Red Riots.

“To me, this is a one-year opportunity for our kids to play a competitive schedule, keep them safe and allow them to have a good experience,” Archer said.

“This is an opportunity to keep our program alive.”

Watch: This is how eight-person football works

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...