Last year, the Massabesic High School girls basketball team from Waterboro made it to the Class AA South semifinals.
The Mustangs went 12-5 during the regular season to finish as the fourth seed and beat Sanford in the AA South Tournament quarterfinals before losing to top seed and eventual champ Gorham.
But the Mustangs won’t be in the tournament this season. In fact, they won’t be playing varsity basketball at all.
Despite being one of Maine’s largest high schools with 878 kids, Massabesic does not have enough prospective players to put a girls basketball team out on the court. It is one of three teams this season — in addition to the Rangeley Lakes Regional High School boys and girls teams — that are taking at least one year off from varsity competition as teams across the state continue to see their rosters shrink due to declining enrollment and competing activities.
The Rangeley girls were 10-3 during the regular season last year and the second seed in Class D South. The boys were 4-10 and earned the seventh seed.
Rangeley has 60 students but is tied for the second-highest enrollment in D South with Greenville, one behind Temple Academy of Waterville.
The athletic directors for both schools, Massabesic’s Brendan Scully and Rangeley’s Jeff LaRochelle, didn’t want to pull the plug on their basketball seasons but felt they had no choice.
If a team starts a season but can’t finish it due to a lack of numbers, that school cannot field a varsity team in that sport for two years, according to Maine Principals’ Association guidelines.
Sixteen players signed up for the Massabesic girls team but injuries, including some season-ending ones, combined with other factors such as illness left the Mustangs with just six or seven healthy players.
Three of the four returning players, including starting point guard Lydia Desrochers, have been sidelined by injuries. Desrochers suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Massabesic girls basketball head coach Paul Nolette is having the available players play a junior varsity schedule but finding other junior varsity teams to play hasn’t been easy, according to Scully, because not every school has enough players to field one.
“It’s an unfortunate trend,” Scully said.
Mike Bisson, the assistant executive director of the MPA, said there are multiple reasons for the declining numbers of participants, including the fact that enrollments in the state have been declining for 30 years.
“And there are more options for kids than ever before,” Bisson said. “The pandemic didn’t help because kids found alternative activities.”
Remote learning also led some parents to seek out alternative schooling options for their children, such as “small, local faith-based schools or virtual academies,” Bisson said.
Student-athletes specializing in one sport rather than playing multiple sports, as well as travel programs that offer a player many more games than a high school schedule, have also cut into the numbers of participants.
And the addition of new sports such as girls volleyball and boys and girls lacrosse in recent years makes it more difficult to fill out a roster in other sports, although Bisson pointed out that adding sports isn’t a bad thing.
“We want kids to have the chance to play sports they have a passion for and which gives them a connection to school,” Bisson said.
LaRochelle, who is also the boys basketball coach at Rangeley, said he had seven boys and seven girls on the respective rosters and one of the players had never played basketball before.
“So what happens if that player decides basketball is no fun and leaves?” LaRochelle questioned, adding that the threat of the two-year ban was too great to gamble on trying to complete a full season.
“I don’t want to have to go tell a seventh grader that they won’t be able to play their freshman season” because of the ban, LaRochelle said.
He also pointed to the effect it would have on the teams’ competitors if they had to call off their season after playing a number of games.
“It would have a huge impact on the Heal Points standings,” said LaRochelle, who added that his opponents would be faced with the task of finding other games to fill in for the ones they couldn’t play.
Both Scully and LaRochelle believe this is a one-year deal and that all three teams should have enough players next season between the returnees and incoming freshmen. As a Class D school, Rangeley is also allowed to use eighth graders to fill out its rosters.
Other schools have been struggling to field teams for years, and often play with a small number of players. Last season, the Jonesport-Beals High School boys basketball team had just six players when it ventured to Bangor for the Class D North Tournament quarterfinals.
The Jonesport-Beals boys have won 10 Class D state championships.
The low numbers across all sports has forced schools and the MPA to get more creative.
There were 27 eight-player football teams this past fall in the state after being introduced in 2019 as schools struggled to field 11-player teams.
Additionally, cooperative teams involving several schools combining to field a team have been extremely valuable in enabling youngsters to continue their careers.
Cooperative teams have been vital to the sustainability of athletic programs, Bisson said.
“There used to be a stigma about forming a co-op team but that is long gone now,” Bisson said. “You are going to be seeing more and more of them and not less.”