The sun sets over Washington Academy in East Machias, Maine, on Nov. 9, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

With just six players available in the aftermath of its controlled scrimmage against Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island on Monday, Washington Academy of East Machias has canceled its 2021 varsity football season.

“We don’t have enough players to participate,” said Rich Olivares, the Raiders’ head coach as well as assistant head of school and athletic administrator. “We’re just looking out for the safety of our student-athletes with the plan to bring it back in 2022 when we hope to get suitable numbers to play the game safely.”

Washington Academy was set to join the state’s 8-player small-school football ranks this fall. It had previously competed in the 11-player version of the sport since the program began at the varsity level in 2011 as a member of the Little Ten Conference in Class C through 2012, and since then in Class D when the state’s football landscape expanded from three to four classes.

Participation numbers were always a potential challenge for WA since it was the only high school football team in Washington County and there was no available feeder system for the independent high school program.

The school’s Down East location makes it problematic for WA to form a cooperative entry with another existing football-playing school. The nearest 8-player program is Ellsworth, 60 miles away.

WA had just eight players when it traveled to Ellsworth for its three-way controlled scrimmage after the first week of preseason practices.

Olivares said two players were injured during the scrimmage, leaving the active roster with just six players.

“It was nothing major,” said Olivares of the injuries, “but you can’t go on with eight kids.”

Olivares, in his second year as the Raiders’ head coach, said he had 27 players during the summer of 2020 but a large class of seniors graduated.

Maine’s 2020 tackle football season was canceled due to COVID-19 and replaced by 7-on-7 flag or touch football.

Olivares said the program typically attracts players when classes begin, but with school not in session at WA until Sept. 7 this year and the high school football regular season set to begin on Sept. 3, any newcomers once school begins wouldn’t be eligible to play until Week 4 at the earliest because they first would be required to complete a two-week acclimatization period mandated by the Maine Principals’ Association.

“I think what’s going on this year is that we have a lot of kids who are working and making good money this summer,” Olivares said. “We have kids who want to play and would work hard at it, but it’s not ideal for them to begin in August because that’s when they’re working.”

Under another MPA rule, if a team cancels its schedule in a sport before the regular season starts it is eligible to resume varsity competition the following year. If a team is forced to cancel the remainder of its season after it has started playing regular-season games, it would be subject to a two-year suspension from varsity competition.

“There’s a bunch of different variables that just didn’t add up for us this year,” Olivares said.

Washington Academy was coming off an 0-7 season of 11-player football in 2019, but a year earlier went 4-4 and advanced to the Class D North semifinals.

WA’s decision leaves the North division of the 8-player ranks with six teams: Dexter, Houlton, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Mount View of Thorndike, Orono and Stearns of Millinocket.

WA was scheduled to play an exhibition game at Waterville on Saturday before opening its regular season at Dexter on Saturday, Sept. 4.

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...