Maine Central Institute plays Leavitt High School in this November 2019 file photo. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season and Maine communities are excited for the sport to return in 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

When the conversation turned to football Friday morning, Steve Vanidestine couldn’t resist smiling about the expected return of the sport this fall.

This week’s release of statewide high school football schedules marked another step toward normalcy for supporters of a sport that was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic for being too high-risk.

“Doesn’t it feel that way?” said Vanidestine, a former player and coach at Bangor High School and now the longtime athletic administrator at his alma mater. “That’s what I’m feeling. Fingers crossed.”

Much of the work on the 2021 schedules, which was done before the 2020 season, was sidelined due to tackle football’s risk categorization by state community sports guidelines that the Maine Principals’ Association followed.

But with those risk guidelines retired by the state last month, schools are cleared to resume traditional football competition so long as there isn’t a resurgence of the pandemic that might prompt a reversal of course.

“You’re excited for the kids, you’re excited for the coaches,” said Fred Lower, athletic administrator at Hampden Academy and chair of the MPA’s football committee. “You just feel bad for the seniors this past year that didn’t have that same opportunity. Last fall we put forward a proposal and thought we could do it safely but it didn’t come to be so it’s nice now that we’re back.”

Bangor High School will open its Class A season on Sept. 3 or 4 at neighboring Brewer. That’s one of the Rams’ two Class B opponents along with Deering of Portland, in addition to seven games against Class A foes.

“I couldn’t be happier that the schedule’s out,” Vanidestine said. “We’re at Brewer to open the season and we’re pleased to be ready to go. I just hope football’s normal and we can go out and do it right.”

For the first time this fall, teams may move from their designated class by enrollment to a lower class and remain eligible for postseason play.

Hampden Academy is among the schools hoping to take advantage of that opportunity as it shifts from Class B to Class C.

“C North is where we fit in the sport of football,” Lower said. “If you go back and look at Hampden football over the last 15 or 20 years, when they’ve had some competitive success is when they were playing those teams that are in Class C North. … Hopefully this will help us build the numbers and be more competitive in the games.”

Hampden will be joined in C North by Belfast, Hampden, Hermon, Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, Nokomis of Newport, Oceanside of Rockland, Old Town and Winslow.

Three schools have left that division: John Bapst of Bangor to Class D, and Waterville and Mount Desert Island to the eight-player ranks.

Class D will consist of one statewide division including Bucksport, Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft, Freeport, John Bapst, Lisbon-St. Dominic, Madison-Carrabec, Oak Hill of Wales, Poland and Winthrop-Monmouth. Each team will play eight games over nine weeks, with one bye game.

The most significant change from 2019 is the expansion of eight-player football from 10 schools to 26, with 12 in the large-school division and 14 in the small-school ranks.

Schools new to eight-player football are large schools Camden Hills of Rockport, Cheverus of Portland, Lake Region of Naples, MDI, Morse of Bath, Spruce Mountain of Jay, Washington Academy of East Machias and Waterville. The new small school contenders are Dexter, Dirigo of Dixfield, Houlton, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Mt. View of Thorndike, Mountain Valley of Rumford, Orono and Stearns-Schenck.

Another priority for 2021 is to offer full eight-game junior varsity schedules to help programs build depth. That effort includes replacing longer trips on varsity schedules with more localized JV competition.

Brewer, for instance, faces long varsity road trips to Brunswick, Windham, Mt. Blue of Farmington and Falmouth-Greely. Those opponents are replaced for junior varsity games against nearby Bucksport, Hampden, Foxcroft Academy and Bangor.

“The JV schedule is as important as the varsity schedule because a lot of rosters don’t know what they’re going to have for numbers because they didn’t have a season last year,” said Dave Utterback, Brewer School Department athletic administrator and chair of the MPA’s classification committee. “Some of those [varsity] matchups were created because you’re in more of a statewide model with a lot of this, and there were some JV matchups we needed to retweak to keep the interest of football up around local communities and regions.

“I don’t expect on a Monday that Windham is going to send its JV team up to Doyle Field [in Brewer]. That’s just unreasonable.”

Lower expects the football schedules to be revised annually as teams continue to shift classifications.

“We understand with football being a different sport and the movement that’s being allowed into eight-man or back from eight-man to Class D that teams are going to change from year to year.”

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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...