Ellsworth High School football coach Duane Crawford (foreground, center) huddles with players after a discussion during an August 2019 practice at the school. Credit: Gabor Degre

A new framework has been recommended for the rapidly expanding eight-player movement in high school football around the state.

The lingering question is, just how many more schools are on the verge of making the switch from 11-player football to the eight-player version, which debuted in Maine last year?

The Maine Principals’ Association Football Committee on Monday unanimously endorsed a plan that would retain two divisions (large schools and small schools) of eight-player football for the 2020 season. Separate state champions will be crowned in each division for the first time next November.

In the inaugural season, the large-school winner played the small-school titlist for the state championship.

Because as many as nine schools could shift from Class D to the eight-player ranks next season, the committee backed retaining a single, statewide Class D division for 2020.

The enrollment cutoffs for the divisions would change slightly. The small-school division will include eight-player schools with enrollments of 374 students or fewer and the large-school division will be home to schools with enrollments of 375 or more.

Last year, the enrollment ranges were small schools, 350 or fewer students, and large schools, 351 or more students. Five schools competed in each division in 2019.

Up to 14 other schools have expressed interest in joining the eight-player ranks for the first time next fall, and the enrollment cutoffs were revised in an effort to place an even number of schools in each division.

“Now with the numbers of schools we’re looking at we can differentiate between the two divisions [for state-championship competition],” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA’s interscholastic division.

No other immediate changes are anticipated in the 11-player ranks, Burnham said, as the MPA will be in the second year of its two-year classification cycle for all sports. That leaves any more significant adjustments to the 11-player Classes A, B, C and D ranks for 2021.

Change looms large in the eight-player ranks, which may more than double in the number of participating schools. So far only four schools — Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, Morse of Bath, Spruce Mountain of Jay and Dirigo of Dixfield — have formally informed the MPA of their intent to make the move.

Dirigo forfeited its 2019 season of 11-player football after its first regular-season game because of low numbers and safety issues. Under MPA policy, a team that does not complete its schedule once it has started must sit out the following two years before resuming varsity play.

But the football committee unanimously recommended to support that school’s appeal to rejoin the varsity ranks in 2020 as long as it competes in the eight-player division in order to help preserve its program.

Dirigo’s appeal is subject to approval in March by the MPA’s interscholastic management committee.

Dirigo, MDI, Morse and Spruce Mountain would join the 10 schools that competed in eight-player football last fall. Large-school champion Mt. Ararat of Topsham defeated small-school winner Old Orchard Beach 58-25 for the state title.

Other schools that competed in eight-player football last fall were Ellsworth/Sumner, Maranacook of Readfield, Yarmouth, Gray-New Gloucester, Sacopee Valley of Hiram, Traip Academy of Kittery, Telstar of Bethel and Boothbay.

All 10 original eight-player teams are expected to return next fall.

Numerous other schools are still exploring a potential shift to eight-player football either through internal discussions, public forums or school board decisions.

“As schools are at various stages of the decision-making process, what we did today was put out a framework on where they’re going to fall,” Burnham said. “Now it’s squarely on them to make a decision without any pressure from the football committee or the MPA.”

Other schools reportedly considering eight-player football are Camden Hills of Rockport, Mount View of Thorndike, Washington Academy of East Machias, Stearns of Millinocket, Houlton, Orono, Nokomis of Newport, Waterville, Mountain Valley of Rumford and Lake Region of Naples.

“We knew that there were a number of schools that took a wait-and-see attitude, which is typical anytime you’re introducing something new,” Burnham said. “It might have grown a little bit more than I anticipated, but I did expect that with the success we saw and really the enjoyment that the kids in the schools that participated had … I don’t see us going backward from here. I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity.”

Orono halted its 2019 season before its schedule started, meaning it wasn’t subject to the same MPA penalties faced by Dirigo. The school originally planned to return to traditional football next season but along with several other Class D North teams, Orono is now considering a move to eight-player competition.

Orono school administrators are discussing all of the Red Riots’ options, though no final decision has been made.

“We’re in a different place with regards to eight-man football than we were last year,” Orono athletic administrator Mike Archer said.

If all the teams that potentially could shift to eight-player football next fall make the move, that could leave a Class D division with eight 11-player programs — Bucksport, Dexter, Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Lisbon/St. Dominic, Madison/Carrabec, Oak Hill of Wales and Winthrop/Monmouth Academy/Hall-Dale.

Those schools would create schedules among each other along with possible crossover games against Class C or Class B opponents.

“To know where the Class D schools stand with these schools that are potentially moving into the eight-man division I think is crucial,” Burnham said. “They need to know what it will look like for them.”

Schools have been asked to make a classification commitment for the 2020 season by Feb. 28. The football committee recommendation will be considered by the MPA’s classification committee on March 9 and the interscholastic management committee on March 24 before being voted on for final approval by the association’s full membership at their annual spring meeting in April.

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...