The high school sports season opened Monday, beginning a fall that brings the biggest change to Maine high school sports since the open tournament experiment in 2000. High school football expanded from three classes to four. With that expansion, comes the formation of a football league that promises to provide marquee matchups every week.

At first glance, the Pine Tree Conference Class B looks like the toughest, most evenly matched conference Maine high school football has seen in years. As practices began Monday morning, the league’s coaches prepared their players for a grind of a season that begins on Sept. 6.

“You don’t really ever get a week off. Every opponent is a playoff team,” Skowhegan head coach Matt Friedman said.

Of the nine teams in the PTC B, eight made the playoffs in their respective divisions last season. The one that did not, Skowhegan, was in the hunt for a PTC A playoff  spot throughout the season. All four teams that represented Eastern Class A in the playoffs last season — Lawrence, Cony, Brunswick and Messalonskee — are now in the PTC B, along with defending Class B state champion Mt. Blue, the only team in the state to finish the 2012 season undefeated.

“It’s going to be a tough schedule. It’s going to be a tough league. That’s good for us. It’s kind of what we’ve been used to playing Class A football,” Lawrence head coach John Hersom said as his team began its Monday morning practice. “I think that aspect of the league, I don’t think that will be a big adjustment for us.”

Lawrence represented Eastern A in the state championship game in each of the last two seasons, and is looking forward to the challenge this new league presents. The nine teams in the league combined for a record of 66-26 last season, and after losing more than 20 seniors to graduation, Hersom will depend on many new players to maintain the Bulldogs’ level of play.

“Certainly, we’ve had a lot of outstanding, committed football players since I’ve been here. A lot of these younger guys have learned some great lessons from them. We’re very fortunate that way, to have that kind of mentoring,” Hersom said. “We’re going to be a young group, and a little small group, we’re excited about these kids and their opportunity to kind of carry those same standards we’ve developed over the years.”

High school football teams cannot practice in full pads or run full contact drills until the fifth day of practice.

“Right now, we just want to make sure we’re assimilating these kids,” Friedman said. “We’ll ramp it up during these first days.”

The competitive balance of the PTC B is just one of the high school sports stories to watch unfold this fall. Others include:

• The Skowhegan Area High School field hockey team is going for its fourth straight Class A state title and 13th consecutive Eastern Maine crown. The Indians graduated seven players, but return a lot of talent.

• With the graduation of Waterville’s Bethanie Brown and Erzie Nagy of Lawrence, will any runners emerge and dominate the cross country season?

• The Winslow girls and boys soccer teams should once again contend for regional titles in Eastern B, where rival Waterville joins the league for the first time.

• One of the top junior golfers in the state, Maine Central Institute’s Gavin Dugas could contend for the state title. A junior, Dugas tied for sixth place at the state championships at Natanis.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242
tlazarczyk@centralmaine.com