ROCKPORT — After years of discussion, of creating plans, listening to feedback and editing plans, it took just about 20 minutes of debate Thursday morning to make the biggest change to Maine high school sports in more than 50 years.

The fifth class of high school basketball was approved by the Maine Principals’ Association at its annual meeting at the Samoset Resort. The vote was 67 in favor, 29 against. That’s an almost 70 percent approval rate, a number that surprised some of the members of the MPA classification committee, the group that spent a decade talking about and crafting the proposal. It’s the biggest change to hit Maine high school sports since Heal points were made and used to determine playoff seeding in all basketball classes in 1961. It’s also the right move.

“I knew we had a real solid proposal,” Nokomis Regional High School assistant principal Phil St. Onge said via phone. “Our committee kicked this can down the road for years. We probably went through 100 scenarios.”

“I was a little nervous going in. I’m glad it went through with as big a margin as it did. I guess I’m a little surprised, but I appreciate the support for it,” said Bunky Dow, chairman of the classification committee and athletic director at Mt. Desert Island High School.

The move addresses a problem that’s been simmering and growing for years. As the population of eastern and northern Maine shrank, the schools got smaller. As the schools got smaller, more and more dropped into Class C and Class D. In the recently completed basketball season, 23 schools competed in Eastern Class D. As eastern and northern Maine schools got smaller, and more schools dropped a class (or two), schools were shifted from west to east to fill the gaps in Eastern Maine Class A. In 1995, five of the 13 schools that now play Class A East basketball were in the west. Class A basketball north of Bangor is extinct, and barring an unforseen population boom, it’s not coming back. The number of small schools in Maine will continue to grow.

“We’re getting a log jam down in those really, really small schools,” said Gerry Durgin, the MPA’s liaison to the classification committee. “It’s just a matter of time before you’re going to have to do something. I think the membership spoke and said, ‘We’re ready to move on.'”

While the vote wasn’t as close as many expected, there was enough dissent to show that a good portion of the state’s high school basketball committee will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the future.

The “no” votes can be broken into two groups — those uneasy with any change and the inevitable challenges change brings, and those who voted for their school’s best interest rather than the best interest of high school basketball in Maine.

In that regard, what little debate there was before Thursday morning’s vote didn’t turn into a battle between big schools and small schools. Rather, it was the small schools against the very small schools.

Among those who spoke out against the proposal were representatives from Orono, Sacopee Valley and Richmond. For years, each has been among the largest schools in its respective division. Starting next year, each will be among the smallest — Sacopee Valley and Orono in Class B West and East, respectively, and Richmond in Class C West.

“I’m worried about fielding a schedule,” Richmond athletic director Jonathan Spear said. “That’s a major concern for us. It’s not in our best interest to do it this quickly.”

Building schedules are a grind, whether or not your school is in a league. Drafts are made, torn up and revised all the time. But they get done, because they have to get done. That’s why schedules are a straw man argument against five classes of basketball. If you want to field a team, you’re going to get somebody to play you. It may not be the traditional conference schedule to which many schools have become accustomed, but you’re going to get your games.

Sacopee Valley athletic director Chris Hughes brought up a valid socio-economic point in voicing why he was not in favor of the proposal. With around 355 students, Sacopee Valley will be the smallest school in the new Class B South. With five towns feeding into the school, many students are on a bus to and from school for more than an hour each day, and they have neither time nor inclination to participate in athletics. Another school of 355 students may be more affluent, where students are groomed to participate in sports from a young age.

“Our enrollment is not necessarily a reflection of access to our system,” Hughes said.

While that may be true, it’s also nothing new. If the MPA is going to use enrollment as the lone determining factor when assigning a school to a division, it can’t and shouldn’t take into account social factors.

“It boils down to nobody wants to be the smallest (school) in their division,” Dow said.

Let’s take the time to note that three of the basketball champions this past season — the Hampden boys and Lawrence girls in Class A and the Forest Hills boys in Class D — were among the smallest schools in their divisions. Complaining about school size is a worn-out crutch.

So what comes next? You can bet those involved with soccer, baseball and softball will watch the next two basketball seasons closely, looking to see if the addition of a fifth class is the right move for their sports. Next Friday, the MPA basketball committee will meet in Augusta to start planning for how they’ll handle adding the fifth state tournament.

“I’m excited,” St. Onge said. “More basketball is better.”

Thursday morning’s vote was the right first step. Expect more changes.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done. At the same time, when I say that, for the first time in a long time, leagues are talking to each other and leagues are trying to have those conversations,” Durgin said. “What can we do to help each other? Let’s look at classification. Let’s look at playing outside our leagues. I think those people need to be commended, because that’s a good first step for this happening.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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