A John Bapst football player gets a grip on a Washington Academy player during a 2012 football game in Bangor, Maine. Credit: Michael C. York / BDN

A final decision on whether the state’s most Down East high school football team will return to the gridiron this fall is expected next week, according to the athletic director and head football coach at Washington Academy in East Machias.

Washington Academy, an independent school that had been fielding an 11-player varsity squad since 2011, canceled last year’s planned debut in the state’s eight-player ranks during preseason due to a shortage of players.

The early cancellation enabled the Raiders a chance to return to varsity competition this fall. Had the team canceled its schedule after the regular season began it would have been subject to a two-year suspension under a Maine Principals’ Association rule.

Rich Oliveras, also assistant head of school at Washington Academy, has been working to boost interest within the school for the lone varsity football program in Washington County.

“We will have an answer by the end of next week,” he said. “We’ve met a couple of times, and we’re meeting again at the end of this week with any prospective student-athletes that are interested. We just don’t have a definite answer yet but we plan on having it hopefully by then.”

Washington Academy is the only high school sponsoring football in Washington County, but there is no youth feeder program for the sport in the area nor the likelihood of the Raiders joining a cooperative team, as the nearest eight-player program is 60 miles away in Ellsworth.

Many of the high school student-athletes who might participate in the sport also are busy working summer jobs until the start of the school year, which comes at least two weeks after the start of preseason practices and often after the first week of the football regular season.

Preseason practices for the MPA’s 2022 fall sports season are scheduled to begin Aug. 16, with the first regular-season games slated for Friday, Sept. 3. Labor Day follows on Monday, Sept. 6.

All players who join a high school football team also must complete a 10-day acclimatization period mandated by the MPA before being eligible to compete in a game.

“Our kids rake blueberries and lobster in the summer,” Oliveras said. “If we were to start after school started when we would have our kids we would already be in Week 2 and then with the 10 days of conditioning we’d already be in Week 4.

“It’s simply a date thing.”

Washington Academy was set to join the state’s eight-player small-school football ranks in 2021 after competing in the 11-player version of the sport since the program was introduced at the school at the varsity level in 2011.

The Raiders competed as a member of the Little Ten Conference in Class C through 2012, then in Class D beginning in 2013 when the MPA added a fourth class.

Washington Academy went 0-7 in its final season of 11-player football in 2019, but in 2018 went 4-4 and advanced to the Class D North semifinals.

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

The state’s eight-player football ranks expanded from 10 schools during its inaugural season in 2019 to 25 schools last fall, with more modest growth anticipated this season.

Bucksport High School has approved plans to move from Class D 11-player football to the eight-player small-school ranks this year, while efforts also continue to add eight-player varsity  teams at Greely High School in Cumberland Center and at the northern Aroostook County high schools serving Fort Kent, Madawaska and Saint Agatha.

Greely was part of a cooperative 11-player Class B program with Falmouth during the 2019 and 2021 seasons.

The northern Aroostook County cooperative entry would replace the area’s Valley Mustangs, a regional team that has been playing in an independent club league that is now down to just four teams, including one in New Hampshire.

The switch would add a second Aroostook County football team — along with Houlton — to the MPA ranks and allow the St. John Valley entry to have a full eight-game interscholastic schedule.

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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...