Houlton's Troy Hipsley (right) gets tackled by Orono's Hayden Rollins during a rain-soaked game in Houlton on Sept. 9, 2021. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

There could be some notable newcomers to eight-player football come the start of preseason practices in August.

The rate of growth in the state’s eight-player high school football ranks this fall may be modest compared with last year, when the number of teams that shifted from traditional 11-player competition to the less-populated version of the sport increased by 150 percent, from 10 to 25 schools.

Bucksport High School already has decided to join the eight-player ranks for the 2022 season, while a cooperative entry involving three northern Aroostook County high schools — Fort Kent, Madawaska and Wisdom of Saint Agatha — is considering making the same move.

At least one other school also may join the eight-player division, as Greely of Cumberland Center, which fielded an 11-player Class A cooperative entry in 2021 with Falmouth, is still working to determine whether it will have its own eight-player team this fall.

Bucksport, a charter member of the Little Ten Conference in 1950 and a frequent contender for regional and state honors in the small-school ranks, will rejoin many of its former LTC rivals in eight-player competition this fall after a recent vote by the local school board, according to Golden Bucks athletic administrator Aaron Ward.

“Certainly the tradition here at Bucksport is huge, so that’s always part of the equation,” he said. “But I think when presented with the facts and the numbers and athlete safety and the impact that moving to eight-man could have in terms of a jayvee schedule and having that benefit of a full jayvee schedule, it was probably in the best interest of the program to make that decision.”

Bucksport, the Class D North champion as recently as 2019, also mulled switching to eight-player football a year ago before sticking with the 11-player brand, and with just four varsity players returning finished 2-6.

Longtime head coach Joel Sankey expects his roster to have between 28 and 32 players this fall, with lower numbers anticipated in 2023 and 2024 before the projections finally increase in 2025.

“We could play 11-man football,” Sankey said. “The problem is we’re still going to be young and inexperienced and we’ll have no depth. And if we play 11-man football I don’t know what we’d do with the [junior varsity] team.”

Indeed, the move to eight-player football at Bucksport is tied not only to varsity competition but also the subvarsity level, where younger players can gain experience against opponents of similar physicality and experience before advancing to the varsity ranks.

While eight-player teams in the region were able to play a full subvarsity schedule last fall, Sankey said Bucksport managed just three or four 11-man junior varsity contests.

“Just having the confidence that after a Friday night game we’re going to have that Monday [JV] game and we’ll have the numbers to support that is huge for the kids that are developing at that level, and it’s obviously for the future going forward,” Ward added.

Bucksport’s eight-player football varsity schedule is expected to include games against traditional foes such as Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Dexter, Orono and Stearns of Millinocket, as well as Hancock County rivals Mount Desert Island and Ellsworth.

Road games against those opponents in most cases will require much shorter bus rides than last fall’s Class D schedule, when the Golden Bucks’ road trips to Winthrop (twice), Oak Hill of Wales, Lisbon and Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft averaged at least two hours one way.

“It’s kind of bittersweet for us,” Ward said. “You obviously want to maintain that 11-man status if you can, but there’s also a lot of excitement going back to playing some of our traditional rivals, too, so we’ll see where it takes us.”

The potential cooperative entry from the crown of Maine currently is known as the St. John Valley Mustangs, which consists of student-athletes from the Valley Unified SAUs of SAD 27 in Fort Kent, SAD 33 in Frenchville and the Madawaska School Department.

The team has competed for more than a decade in an independent league that featured three Aroostook County teams until Houlton joined the Maine Principals’ Association football ranks in 2014 and switched to eight-player competition in 2021.

The Mustangs captured their fifth league championship since 2007 last fall, but as one of just four teams left in the Maine Independent Football League — including one from distant Berlin, New Hampshire — supporters hope the team will gain school affiliation and be approved to join the MPA ranks to ensure a full regular-season schedule against opponents from northern and eastern Maine.

The topic was discussed at a recent SAD 27 board meeting and is expected to be addressed again in early May.

“We’re looking to get the team into the MPA rotation,” Fort Kent athletic administrator Josh Nichols said.

Nichols said if the proposal is approved, a regular practice site likely would be established at one of the three schools with home games rotated among the three communities.

One factor that may benefit the Mustangs’ ability to transition to the interscholastic level is the team’s existing infrastructure. Nichols said the program is largely self-sustaining financially through the efforts of an active boosters’ program and also has a junior high-level team that could serve as a ready-made feeder system for the high school team.

“If we had to start a program from scratch I don’t think it would happen, but where they’ve been established for [more than] 10 years now they have all the equipment they need and basically everything they have they’re going to transition to the schools so the program can start right up,” he said.

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...