The Houlton High School football team, pictured taking the field for an August exhibition game, is among the football programs that are benefiting from the new tiered crossover scheduling system implemented by the Maine Principals' Association. Credit: Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times

Rhett McDonald was pumped up after preserving John Bapst’s 7-6 victory over Houlton last Friday night by blocking a 37-yard field-goal try with 16 seconds left in the game.

The play not only assured the Bangor-based Crusaders a winning season for the first time since 2014, but it also kept coach Dan O’Connell’s club in contention for a Class C North quarterfinal home game.

“Since I’ve been at Bapst, we haven’t been that good in other seasons, so it feels amazing to actually have people supporting us now,” McDonald said. “It just feels good for our games to mean something.”

John Bapst’s 5-2 start this year — the Crusaders won four games in the previous four seasons combined — is based in part on experience.

“We have 16 seniors who have done a really good job in terms of changing the mentality in terms of preparation, changing the mentality in terms of caring about each other, and going out every day and executing to get better,” said O’Connell, John Bapst’s 18th-year head coach.

But another reason for the success achieved by John Bapst and Houlton — which is vying to host a Class D playoff game for the first time — is a tiered scheduling system implemented by the Maine Principals’ Association. The concept was first adopted in ice hockey and more recently has been introduced to football to create a more competitive balance.

Teams in each class and region are first ranked from top to bottom by league coaches, then crossover games scheduled involving schools from different classes or regions that are ranked at the same level of their respective divisions.

John Bapst was considered in the middle tier in Class C North this year, while Houlton was a middle-tier Class D North squad. So instead of the Crusaders and Shiretowners facing the top teams in their divisions — Winslow in Class C North and Bucksport in Class D North — they battled each other.

“We’re in Week 7 and both teams are playing a meaningful football game,” said O’Connell, who also is a member of the Maine Football Coaches Association and a liaison to the MPA football committee.

“That’s the most important thing for me, and if somehow tiered scheduling has helped, then I will continue to try to push that forward.”

Most teams play one or two crossover games this season, but Houlton has played three Class C North opponents after Class D North rival Orono suspended its program before the season due to low participation.

Class C Belfast replaced Orono on the Shiretowners’ schedule, and that crossover contest produced another one-point decision, a 7-6 Houlton victory.

“These are playoff-caliber games for us, and that helps with our compete level,” said Houlton coach Brian Reynolds, whose team is 2-1 against Class C foes.

Last season, the Shires endured a 63-6 loss to Bucksport, a 65-6 loss to Foxcroft and a 62-0 loss to Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln.

“Those were very good teams, and we were very young, but it gives you a different perspective when you’re looking at competing for a home playoff game, especially when it would be the first time in our history to hopefully host one,” Reynolds said.

“Getting to play meaningful games against good competition from Class C schools is just helping us grow our program better than ever before.”

Crossover scheduling also gives struggling lower-tier teams a higher likelihood of closer games than if they played the top teams in their leagues. It also matches top-tier teams from different conferences and classes in games that could help strengthen those clubs for postseason play.

Some of the top-tier crossover games have produced memorable games, including defending Class A state champion Thornton Academy of Saco’s 28-27 survival of reigning Class B state champ Marshwood of South Berwick and three-time defending Class C titlist Wells’ 18-6 win over Winslow.

In another quality Class D crossover game, Bucksport trailed Oak Hill 14-0 in the fourth quarter but roared back for a 21-14 victory.

“Those games don’t happen if we’re just playing in our conferences,” O’Connell said.

“You end up getting more competitive championship games, hopefully.”

Tiered scheduling admittedly does not work all the time.

Two-time defending Class D North champion Foxcroft Academy is fielding a young team this fall. The Ponies’ crossover games produced a 42-19 loss to 7-0 Class C South leader Leavitt of Turner Center and a 69-21 defeat at 6-1 Winslow.

But head coach Danny White remains a big believer in tiered scheduling.

“I’m immensely still in favor of it,” said White, whose team took a 3-4 record into Friday’s game against Bucksport. “I like the fact that no matter what type of team you have, you can play a competitive schedule.”

Foxcroft will graduate only four seniors, and White is optimistic the experience gained from a regular-season schedule — whose final six opponents were a combined 35-8 through Week 7 — will pay dividends in the future.

“Both teams we played in crossover games [Leavitt and Winslow] may end up playing for the [Class C] state championship,” he said. “I wouldn’t have selected those two teams to play [as crossovers] because it just so happens we’re young this year, but we’ll be better for playing that tough competition.”

Other coaches believe the chance to join Foxcroft as a more consistent playoff contender makes tiered scheduling a valuable tool.

“There’s no system we can come up with where 76 teams all have a chance to win a state championship,” O’Connell said. “But to be playing meaningful football games with a chance to be in the playoffs, and a chance to compete toward that goal is so important that to me it far outweighs the notion that everyone has the ability to win a state championship starting in August.”

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...