AUGUSTA — Changes could be coming to the Maine high school football landscape. Just how sweeping those changes would be is yet to be determined, but if any of the ideas discussed at Monday’s meeting of the Maine Principals’ Association football committee are adopted, the game will look vastly different next fall.
The committee met with coaches and athletic directors representing the state’s eight high school football conferences for more than two hours, brainstorming ways to make the sport more competitive and to help programs teetering on the brink of collapse.
“I just don’t think we can stay idle,” Dan O’Connell, the head football coach at John Bapst high school, said.
Over the last few seasons, schools across the state have seen football participation numbers drop, some to the point where they’ve left the varsity ranks for club or junior varsity status. Teams at Sacopee Valley, Telstar, Camden Hills and Boothbay are gone, and other schools such as Traip Academy, Orono and Old Orchard Beach expect to have barely enough players to field a team next season. Some larger schools also report dwindling numbers.
Mike Burnham, an assistant executive director of the MPA and liaison to the football committee, said he took calls from two Class B schools struggling with low football participation during the regular season. The lack of competitive balance is a problem that is common through each of the state’s four classes, Burnham said.
“We can’t lose sight of (the fact) there were 21 schools with two or fewer wins (this past season),” Burnham said.
Among the solutions discussed were expanding to five classes, adding a developmental league or a league playing seven-, eight-, or nine-man football, or tiering schedules as is done in ice hockey.
“With tiers similar to hockey, ultimately you get more competitive games. I think Winslow this year would much rather have played Skowhegan than John Bapst,” O’Connell said, referencing his team’s 56-6 loss to the powerful Black Raiders in a Big Ten Conference game.
A tiered schedule would encourage teams to play cross-class games, although consensus was a change would need to be made to the playoff formula. Playoff seeding is currently done using Crabtree Points, which take into account a team’s record and the record of its opponents. Crabtree Points do not account for more or fewer points when competing against schools in a different class, like Heal Points do. This season, the Campbell Conference, which represents schools in Class B, C, and D South, encouraged teams to play cross-class games, although few did. The lack of a points incentive was cited by Wells head coach Tim Roche as a reason his team did not.
“There’s no benefit for us to do that,” Roche said.
“Sitting in Kennebunk, I’m going to need a big incentive to go to (Class A) Thornton,” Kennebunk head coach Joe Rafferty said.
Since the introduction of four classes in 2013, Rafferty’s team has enjoyed success in Class B, reaching the state championship game in 2013 and this past season.
“When we were in Class A, we went 4-4 twice. Now we go to Class B, we have success. Not a lot has changed with our program,” he said.
The eight- or nine-game schedule of a football season also makes it more difficult to be more creative in scheduling.
“There’s a lot more flexibility in hockey and basketball, because of 18 games. It’s going to be hard with a limited schedule,” Lewiston athletic director Jason Fuller said.
Fuller suggested a division of seven-, eight-, or nine-man football for programs struggling to find enough players to field a competitive team of 11.
“Every other year, we’ve done this,” Fuller said. “We’ve never tried something completely out of the box. It gives them a product nobody else has. It’s very innovative.”
Winthrop athletic director Joel Stoneton said he doesn’t think there’s an interest in competing with fewer players among the struggling and smaller schools. Football committee chair Ed Hatch, athletic director at Bucksport, asked representatives from each league to talk with the struggling teams to find out what each is looking for.
There was some support for adding a fifth class, including from Roche, whose team won the Class C state title last month. With fewer teams playing in each class, scheduling crossover games between North and South teams would be a necessity. Wells played northern teams in the past, and would do so again if it meant more competitive games, Roche said.
“While I don’t like to travel, I like to play Winslow,” Roche said.
Bonny Eagle head coach Kevin Cooper said the problem facing Maine high school football is less about the number of classes, and more about finding competitive balance.
“Class fixes nothing, in my opinion. You can have five classes or three classes. It’s just putting tiles in a bag and shaking them up,” Cooper, whose team won the Class A state championship last month, said. “It’s all about scheduling. The more we do creative scheduling, the more Crabtree Points don’t work.”
Cooper said whatever is done for the 2017 season, it must do more to help the struggling programs.
“Sacopee Valley should be saved. They should have a thriving football program,” Cooper said.
Lower football participation can be caused by a program’s lack of success, and it’s also a by-product of smaller schools in general, MPA assistant executive director Gerry Durgin said. Durgin also added that 75 percent of the schools currently in the MPA have enrollment below 599 students, and 50 percent of the MPA’s membership has enrollment below 299 students. Of the few schools that saw enrollment increases since 2006, most are private schools, he said.
“We’re getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” Durgin said. “Public schools in Maine are really not getting any larger. It’s an issue every activity is facing.”
The football committee will hold a teleconference on Dec. 21 to go over new information it hopes to get from schools. The committee hopes to have a plan for 2017 in place by mid-February, when the MPA wants to send a plan to all schools for feedback.
The full membership will vote on an alignment in April.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242