Ellsworth High School football players warm up during an August 2019 practice at the school. The school was among 10 that played eight-player football last year, but the number has swelled to 26 for the 2020 season. Credit: Gabor Degre | bdn

As expected, the popularity of eight-player football will continue to transform the Maine high school landscape for the 2020 season.

The Maine Principals’ Association has approved several proposed football classification changes, including two divisions to accommodate 26 eight-player teams. That’s an increase of 16 programs from the state’s implementation of the alternative format last year.

The remaining 51 schools sponsoring programs will compete in one of four divisions in traditional 11-player football.

The MPA Football Committee met Monday to approve the changes, which garnered the support of the MPA’s Classification Committee and its Management Committee, according to a memo sent to schools. The organization’s full membership normally would vote on such a recommendation, but that requirement has been waived since this year’s MPA Spring Conference was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerns about competitiveness and the ability to maintain a viable schedule with longtime conference and regional rivals are two of the primary reasons cited by schools opting to make the switch to eight-player football.

The rapid proliferation of the movement has impacted Maine’s classification setup in several ways.

Eight-player programs will continue to play in two statewide divisions, Large School and Small School, each of which will compete for a separate state championship in November.

Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, Waterville and Camden Hills of Rockport are among eight newcomers to the Large School division. Cheverus of Portland, Lake Region of Naples, Morse of Bath, Mountain Valley of Rumford and Spruce Mountain of Jay also have joined those ranks.

Mt. Ararat of Topsham, which won the inaugural eight-player state championship — which pitted the Large School winner against the Small School champ — along with Ellsworth, Gray-New Gloucester and Yarmouth, return for another season.

There has been a large influx of former Class D North schools into the Eight-Player Small School division. They include Orono, Dexter, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Houlton, Stearns of Millinocket, Washington Academy of East Machias and Mount View of Thorndike.

Those programs accounted for six of the eight Little Ten Conference (Class D North) programs in 2019.

Other newcomers are Maranacook of Readfield, which last year competed in the Large School division, and Dirigo of Dixfield. Old Orchard Beach, last year’s top Small School entry, returns alongside Boothbay, Sacopee Valley of South Hiram, Telstar of Bethel and Traip Academy of Kittery.

Among the traditional 11-player football programs, the statewide Class A division that includes Bangor remains intact with eight schools.

Class B is composed of 18 schools, nine each in the North and South regions. Brewer, Skowhegan, Messalonskee of Oakland, Lawrence of Fairfield, Mt. Blue of Farmington, Cony of Augusta, Brunswick, Falmouth/Greely and Windham are in familiar company in the North.

At their request, Hampden Academy and Gardiner have moved to Class C North and South, respectively, despite having Class B enrollments. Westbrook, another former B South program, switched to C South.

Upon MPA approval, such allowances are now being made to help some struggling programs stay competitive. Those teams also are eligible for postseason play, which was not the case in the past.

Class C has endured the departure of seven teams to the Eight-Player ranks, which has left nine programs in Class C North and seven in C South.

Other schools playing with Hampden Academy in Class C North include Hermon, Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield, Winslow, Nokomis of Newport, Old Town, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, Oceanside of Rockland and Belfast.

Some of the perennial powerhouse teams are maintaining their position in Class D, which is now a nine-team statewide division. They include LTC mainstays Bucksport and Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft and defending state champion Lisbon/Saint Dominic, along with John Bapst of Bangor and Madison/Carrabec.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...