The Maine Principals’ Association football committee began its biennial classification slog this week. It’s more of a chore than a labor of love. With revolving membership on the football committee over the years, it’s continuously done an admirable job, with only the best intentions for Maine high school football at heart.

Monday, the committee kicked off this round of classification talks by inviting representatives from each of the eight conferences to present ideas and concerns on the state of football in Maine. It’s no secret that a number of schools are struggling to maintain competitive programs. In the last few years, Sacopee Valley, Telstar, Camden Hills and Boothbay dropped varsity football. Before that, a football team at Calais came and went, a footnote in the history of the Little Ten Conference. Other schools, of all sizes, are struggling to keep participation in football at numbers that lead to competitive games.

Only good can come from the MPA football committee listening to the concerns and ideas of its members. That only works if the right members are the ones speaking up.

At Monday’s meeting, representatives from Bonny Eagle, Brunswick, Wells and Maine Central Institute spoke up. Those are the four schools that won state titles last month. Also present were coaches or athletic directors from Kennebunk, Lisbon, Brewer and Winthrop/Monmouth. Those are schools that played for either a state or regional title this past season.

You know who wasn’t there? Anybody from Sacopee Valley, Telstar, Camden Hills or Boothbay. Nobody from Traip Academy, Old Orchard Beach, Noble, Gorham, or any of the schools with the biggest concerns.

Rather than hear directly from these schools, the committee asked those who did come to go back to their leagues, and find out what the struggling programs are looking for. They could have been there on Monday and voiced their concerns themselves, rather than sending healthy surrogates who can’t properly voice the issues.

The MPA should work to help teams struggling to compete. At the same time, improvement starts at the local level. The commitment to football has to come at each school, not from the MPA tinkering with competitive balance in Augusta.

There are schools in Maine that like the idea of having a football program a lot more than actually having a football program. It’s a sport that takes work to maintain. No other sport needs as many athletes. It’s a grind to play, especially when you’re losing blowouts every week. Each school looking at lopsided losses and low participation needs to do some soul-searching and decide if it really wants a football team, or wants to pretend to have a football team. Once that happens, the MPA can get serious about classification.

One idea debated was adding a fifth class, which makes no sense at all. A fifth class just dilutes the problem, but it fixes nothing. It gives better programs, regardless of size, a smaller field in which to compete for a state title. It does nothing to account for more competitive games. Bonny Eagle coach Kevin Cooper was right when he said Maine high school football doesn’t have a classification problem, it has a scheduling problem.

Here’s a modest proposal. Keep four classes. Mandate a nine-game regular season. Teams play six games against other teams in their conference. Those six games count toward playoff seeding. The other three games, schedule who you want. If Traip and Stearns want to play a home and home for two years and don’t mind the miles between Kittery and Millinocket, let them. If Winslow and Lawrence want to rekindle their old rivalry, once one of the best in the state, let them. The state’s football programs have become too dependent on conference scheduling, and that needs to change.

Also, allow schools that petition down to build their program to compete for a playoff spot. Playing for the future of your program is noble, and there’s something to be said for laying the foundation. There’s also something to be said for the gratification that comes with the more urgent reward of a playoff spot. The MPA can put a limit on this, allowing teams to qualify for the playoffs only in the first two-year cycle of playing down. If after two years, a school feels it still cannot compete in its own class, then it has to look in the mirror and decide if football is important,

The MPA also can put restrictive guidelines in place to prevent schools from playing down for two years just for the sake of chasing an easier gold ball. Any more than four wins over the previous four seasons, for instance, you cannot petition down.

No matter what the football committee decides when it meets again on Dec. 21, it knows there is no magic formula that will solve all the state’s high school football problems. No matter what, there will still be blowouts. There will still be teams that win, and teams that lose. Other than more flexible scheduling, there is almost nothing the committee can do to boost struggling programs. Improvement takes a commitment at the local level. As an example, look at MCI. In 2012, the Huskies were winless. Now, MCI is a state champion.

That turnaround was a result of hard work in Pittsfield, not a boost from Augusta.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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