Ellsworth High School fielded the only eight-player football team in the North region among 10 statewide last season. Next fall, as many as 16 more schools will adopt the alternative version of the game, meaning big changes across the state. Credit: Gabor Degre

Major changes are on the way next fall for Maine high school football.

Sixteen more schools are expected to shift from the traditional 11-player version of the sport to the eight-player version that made its varsity debut in Maine last season.

The expansion would place 13 teams in the eight-player large-school division (351 students or more) and 13 schools in the small-school division (350 students or less). The Maine Principals’ Association likely will hold two separate state championships, one for each division.

Last fall, the large-school and small-school winners met for a single state title, which was won by Mt. Ararat of Topsham.

The 26 eight-player teams would represent 34 percent of Maine’s 77 schools that field a football team.

“It’s somewhat of a surprise,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association interscholastic division. “I think we knew there were a number of schools that were taking a wait-and-see approach because of the newness and uniqueness of it, but it’s a pleasant surprise in that it proved itself in a shorter period of time than maybe we had expected.”

Upheaval in the LTC

Most noticeable about the schools ready to adopt eight-player football in 2020 is that three-quarters of the eight programs from the Little Ten Conference that made up Class D North last fall are poised to make the switch.

Dexter’s school board approved the Tigers moving to the eight-player ranks on March 4, joining Houlton, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Mount View of Thorndike, Stearns of Millinocket and Washington Academy of East Machias as LTC members set to make the switch for at least the 2020 season.

Orono High School, another longtime LTC member that suspended its varsity schedule for a year shortly before the 2019 season started, also is set to play eight-player football this fall.

“We’re happy with our program. Obviously, we were in the [Class D North] championship game last fall,” Dexter principal Steve Bell said. “Could we have played 11-man football one more year? Absolutely, if it had been the same 11-man football we had been playing and our schedule looked similar, but more than half our schedule left.”

The LTC contingent will be joined by Camden Hills of Rockport, Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor and Waterville in giving the northern half of the state a much greater presence than last year — when Ellsworth was the lone eight-player team from the region.

Smaller and often younger rosters resulting from declining school enrollments, injury concerns and increased extracurricular options for students are at the heart of the exodus to the eight-player ranks, which began in 2019 with 10 schools.

Washington Academy fielded 25-28 players last season, including a lot of young athletes.

“What we’ve struggled with over the years is having those top athletes playing both offense and defense and having a great first half and then by the second half being worn down,” Washington Academy head of school Judson McBrine said.

Other schools expected to join the eight-player ranks are Cheverus of Portland, Dirigo of Dixfield, Lake Region of Naples, Morse of Bath, Mountain Valley of Rumford and Spruce Mountain of Jay.

While roster size and player safety were primary factors in the decisions to move to eight-player football, the new influx will mean nearly half of those teams in eastern and northern Maine will have lower travel budgets.

Ellsworth last fall played road games at Mt. Ararat, Yarmouth, Gray-New Gloucester and Maranacook of Readfield twice apiece, including a first-round playoff game. North region teams should be able to find many more opponents closer to home this year.

“One reason we didn’t go eight-man last year was due to travel. And who would we play?” McBrine said. “For me one of the driving forces now is that if we had stayed 11-man, who would we play?”

The shift to eight-player football also may make it easier for schools to develop a better junior varsity experience and schedule, as fewer players will be required for varsity competition.

The number of junior varsity games in the region, particularly among smaller schools, has decreased dramatically in recent years, leaving many younger, non-varsity players with few game opportunities.

“Most of the LTC didn’t have enough to play [JV games] on Mondays,” Mattanawcook Academy athletic administrator Bill McCarthy said, “and who wants to stand around a football field for four months and not get to play a game a week?”

New uncertainty in Class D

One byproduct of the growth in the eight-player ranks is the dearth of teams left playing traditional football in Class D.

Only Bucksport and Foxcroft remain from the 2019 Class D North field while Madison, Lisbon, Oak Hill of Wales and Winthrop are pegged to return in the South.

And with football entering the second year of the MPA’s two-year classification cycle, there are no plans until next year to reclassify schools in all divisions based on the expansion of the eight-player ranks.

That leaves the remaining Class D schools uncertain of whether they constitute a large enough group to crown a state champion. Of more immediate concern is how they will fill their 2020 schedules.

“If one more person asks me when homecoming is, I don’t know what I’ll do,” Foxcroft Academy athletic administrator Tim Smith said, “but you can’t set homecoming without a schedule.”

Representatives of those schools met in mid-February to discuss scheduling options, including playing some teams more than once or adding crossover games against Class C or even Class B opponents.

The most intriguing option may be to add several struggling teams from higher classes to Class D for the opportunity to rebuild their programs with the additional attraction of being eligible for postseason play. Current policy prohibits teams from postseason play that compete in a class lower than the on their enrollment mandates.

“We’ve asked five or six Class C schools if they would like to petition down to Class D with the caveat that we’re going to ask the MPA to allow them to be eligible for the playoffs,” Smith said.

“I don’t mind that, but there’s going to have to be some criteria about how to do it.”

Ensuring a level playing field

Developing guidelines for allowing teams to move down a class and be eligible for postseason is just one subject that will be discussed when the MPA football committee meets on March 16.

Criteria specific to eight-player football involving such issues as program eligibility and roster size also are in the developmental stages.

“It’s so important that we put in writing what the criteria are for schools to move to eight-man. That’s got to be number one,” Burnham said.

“As far as the Class D conversation of allowing teams to move down and still qualify for the playoffs, we’d be discussing it for one year because it’s outside the classification cycle but I also would think it would be part of a continuing conversation. We just have to be very careful in determining [those] criteria.”

While some schools with declining enrollments may see the inevitability of competing in the eight-player ranks for the foreseeable future, others hope to use it to rebuild their football programs for an eventual return to 11-player competition.

“We’ve been very transparent,” McCarthy said. “If something happens and our numbers boost, we’re going back to 11-man football. We’re an 11-man football school. We take great pride in our football up here just like all the other LTC teams do.

“But for this year we have to think about the safety of our athletes and the product we’re going to put on the field.”

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...