Washington County won’t be home to a high school football team this fall, but perhaps it’s even more surprising that it even had a varsity program left.
Washington Academy of East Machias opted to cancel its 2021 season this week after just eight players suited up for last Monday’s controlled scrimmage at Ellsworth. Two players left with injuries, leaving the Raiders shorthanded a week away from the team’s debut in the state’s 8-player ranks.
The team’s coach, Rich Olivares, hopes he can recruit enough players so Washington Academy can return to the gridiron in 2022. Even if he succeeds, long-term stability for that program — or any other potential football teams Down East — faces multiple challenges as school enrollments continue to shrink and the absence of a youth league drives kids to other sports.
Calais High School represented Washington County in the varsity football ranks from 2008 through 2011 before suspending its program due to low numbers. Like Washington Academy, which began varsity competition in 2011, the school lacked a feeder system to funnel local kids to the high school level.
The Calais-Woodland cooperative entry did have a feeder system of sorts when it began. Coach Ian Pratt previously led a team of local players in a Canadian maritime youth football league, some of whom became foundational pieces when Calais-Woodland debuted in Class C North.
The Silverados made the playoffs their first three years, but the lack of a sustained youth football presence ultimately led to smaller rosters. After a 1-7 campaign in 2011, the school halted the program in 2012.
Pratt attempted to revive the program in 2019, but school officials declined to approve the effort.
“When we had football here it was good,” Calais athletic administrator Randy Morrison said. “We were competitive and the crowds were good, and I think the team would still be here today if we had a feeder system during the years when we had those good teams — but to get that feeder system is pretty tough around here.”
Washington Academy’s football program has similarly struggled to convince high school kids to give the sport a try.
After advancing to the Class D North semifinals in 2018, the Raiders went 0-7 in 2019. The team had a large group of seniors back in 2020 only to have the tackle football season canceled due to COVID-19.
The ensuing graduation left coach Olivares with a scant number of returning players this year.
“When your numbers are low football is the hardest sport to fix because the kids aren’t back in school yet,” Pratt said.
The lack of youth football programs in Washington County may be traced to the small number of students spread out over a sizable area ranging from Narraguagus High School in Harrington in the west to East Grand School of Danforth in the northeast.
Washington Academy is the largest high school in the county. Its enrollment dropped to 327 last October from 404 in 2018 with the loss of international students due to COVID travel restrictions.
Calais is next among the county’s eight high schools with 230 students.
“You have a really sparsely populated county with a lot of high schools,” Pratt said.
Those low enrollments mean the number of students participating in sports at the middle-school level, a key age group for feeder programs, is similarly thin.
In the Eastern Washington County Elementary Athletic League that serves a number of K-8 schools in the county, member schools play co-ed soccer in order to fill rosters.
The few schools in a large area present another problem, too. While some neighboring Maine schools have banded together and formed cooperative entries to field sports teams, previous attempts to do so in Washington County have not been successful.
The Calais-Woodland experiment between schools approximately 20 minutes apart collapsed after the first couple of years, with no Woodland players joining the Silverados in 2010 and only two in 2011.
The primary reason the cooperative failed was how far players had to travel for practices and games. While those two schools are not that far apart, many students live in outlying rural towns much farther away.
“I don’t know if you could put every high school in Washington County together and come up with a football team,” Morrison said.
Ultimately, football just doesn’t have a foothold in Washington County. Basketball has been king and queen for generations and baseball also is popular — with Machias winning the Class D North title this spring while Washington Academy advanced to the Class C North championship game.
Football in the St. Croix Valley does date back to the late 1800s, with Calais Academy fielding a team until 1932. But the more than seven decades that passed until Calais and Washington Academy fielded their recent squads left generations of student-athletes to find other fall options, particularly soccer, and few people to teach the sport.
“I had people who came out and helped me out when I coached,” Pratt said. “They may have watched a lot of football and some may have played, but I didn’t have people there where I could say, ‘You take the offense and I’ll take the defense,’ so not having that tradition really has an effect.”
Pratt acknowledges that developing a feeder program will be pivotal to Washington Academy’s long-term football fortunes but said the presence of Olivares — whose coaching resume includes 11-player football in California — gives the Raiders a good chance of resuming varsity play in 2022.
“How do you create a culture unless you do it?” he asked. “Baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is America’s passion.”