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A second Maine high school football program has pulled the plug on its 2019 varsity schedule.

Dirigo High School of Dixfield, a member of the Campbell Conference Class D South 11-player division, will not complete its season due to an insufficient number of players, according to a statement issued Wednesday evening by the RSU 56 board of directors.

“Safety is our first priority,” RSU 56 superintendent Pamela Doyen said.

Dirigo began the season with 21 players, according to the team roster listed on the Maine Principals’ Association website, but that number reportedly dipped into the teens after the Cougars’ season-opening 34-13 loss last Friday at Lake Region of Naples.

The team was scheduled to play its home opener Friday against Spruce Mountain of Jay.

“This decision came after the athletic director, superintendent of schools and board chair heard from the football coaches that the current roster poses safety risks for our students,” the statement read. “Dirigo High School began the football season with a limited roster and has experienced injuries that have further depleted that roster.”

[Orono canceled its varsity football season to save the future of its program]

School officials hope the team will be able to play a junior varsity schedule for the remainder of the 2019 season.

If there is sufficient interest in continuing the varsity program at Dirigo, athletic director Jessica McGreevey would petition the MPA seeking a waiver that might allow the Cougars to compete in the state’s new eight-player football division in 2020, according to the RSU 56 statement.

Under MPA rules, if a team drops the remainder of its schedule once the regular season has started it is suspended from varsity competition for the following two years.

“We support the decision based on the safety of the student-athletes at Dirigo not to play at the varsity level,” MPA interscholastic division executive director Mike Burnham said.

“We will work with the school as they move forward with a decision on what to do with their football program. But by policy, by not completing this season they are ineligible for the next two seasons.”

Orono High School dropped its 2019 varsity schedule in late August, nine days before it was to play its season opener. The Class D Red Riots are playing a junior varsity schedule this fall with hopes of resuming varsity play in the 11-player Little Ten Conference in 2020.

Dirigo, which serves the western Maine communities of Canton, Carthage, Dixfield and Peru, is like many public high schools around the state that have experienced a steady enrollment decline in recent years.

The school had 330 students in 2012, according to statistics provided by the MPA for classification purposes. Dirigo’s enrollment was down to 219 — a drop of 33 percent — as of April 1, 2018, the date used for the MPA’s current two-year classification cycle. The number was approximately 210 at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

[The number of Maine kids who play sports keeps dropping]

Dirigo has fielded a competitive small-school program in recent years, capturing the Class C state championship as recently as 2009.

Facing reduced participation numbers last fall, the Cougars played in the MPA’s developmental Class E and finished with an 8-2 record after falling to Freeport 28-13 in the championship game.

The MPA earlier this year replaced Class E with an eight-player football division that debuted varsity play last weekend with 10 participating schools.

Six of the nine teams that played in Class E last year — Boothbay, Maranacook of Readfield, Old Orchard Beach, Sacopee Valley of South Hiram, Telstar and Traip Academy of Kittery — have shifted to the eight-player ranks.

Dirigo, Freeport and Camden Hills of Rockport returned to 11-player varsity competition, with Freeport in Class C South and Camden Hills playing in Class D South in a continuing effort to rebuild its program despite an enrollment that would place the Windjammers in a higher division.

Camden Hills is not eligible for postseason play this fall.

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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...