Three high school football teams will join the Class E developmental league this fall in what could be a precursor of even bigger changes to Maine’s gridiron landscape.

Old Orchard Beach, Freeport and Dirigo will play in Class E in 2018, forming a nine-team league with the six holdovers from the inaugural season – Boothbay, Camden Hills, Maranacook, Sacopee Valley, Telstar and Traip Academy.

Freeport, a Class C program last season, intends to be in Class E for only one season. Old Orchard Beach and Dirigo both were in Class D last year.

A new two-year classification cycle begins in the fall of 2019. Much still needs to be discussed, debated and ultimately decided, but it is apparent that the groundbreaking idea of eight-man football for the state’s smaller schools will be seriously considered for the first time.

“That is certainly a topic that will be explored by the MPA football committee,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association. “They’ve done a couple of surveys in years past, but I think given where football is at across the entire state that it will be discussed in earnest.”

With overall school enrollment declining across the state, many football programs have grappled with dwindling rosters.

Class E was created before the 2017 season to provide an option for struggling programs, including four schools (Boothbay, Camden Hills, Sacopee and Telstar) returning to varsity competition after dropping their programs.

Class E teams do not play for an official MPA championship, but the league held a four-team playoff last fall. Heal Point standings are kept, and there is the possibility of crossover games with teams from other classes.

“We strongly considered (moving to Class E) last year, but with the strength of our senior group, we didn’t think it was right for our program or the right thing for Maine football,” said Dean Plante, football coach and athletic director at Old Orchard Beach. “Now, we (will graduate) 16 seniors, and where they made a playoff system (in Class E), as well as some of the other teams going into Class E and we’re getting an eight-game schedule … it was probably wise to go in that direction.”

Plante said he’ll wait until after reclassification is finished before he worries about where the Seagulls will play in 2019.

“We’ll see what the MPA considers. There’s a lot of possibilities, (including) strong consideration of eight-man football (and) basing classification on more than just enrollment,” Plante said. “There’s a lot of work to be done before now and the next schedule.

“Eight-man football has definitely gained some traction, certainly at the MPA level. And, when you research it, it’s not as uncommon around the country as one would think. We just haven’t had it in Maine. And it’s an exciting brand of football.”

Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels, a member of the MPA Classification Committee that oversees classification for all sports, said eight-man football hasn’t been discussed at the Classification Committee level, “but it is being discussed at the conference level, among athletic directors and among some of those smaller schools. It’s just brainstorming ideas.”

Freeport is not a likely candidate for a long-term stay in Class E or an eight-man format. But the Falcons project to have only 28 players in 2018, with 21 being freshmen or sophomores.

“That right there is the sole reason to go to Class E,” Sickels said. “We couldn’t see that team playing varsity level at Class C. Last year, we had double-digit seniors and won one game.”

The numbers are better at the middle school level, where Freeport expects to have 16 eighth-graders, 18 seventh-graders, 15 sixth-graders and 12 fifth-graders playing this fall.

Last season, Old Orchard Beach and Dirigo had 3-5 records in Class D South, with Dirigo qualifying for the playoffs. The teams faced increased competition in Class D after several traditionally strong programs moved down from Class C – notably Wells, Madison/Carrabec and Mountain Valley.

“Now, we’ll have a lot of teams that we had competed against regularly – the Boothbays, the Traips, the Dirigos – so it’s not a huge scheduling change,” Plante said.

Traip forfeited six games last season, including its last five, because it did not have enough healthy players. The Rangers’ “intent is to play a full Class E schedule this year,” said Athletic Director Mike Roberge.

Roberge said he is not concerned that former Class C and D schools are joining the league because “all of the schools are under the same philosophy of Class E.”

Ed McDonough, who coached Traip in 2017, will not to return, Roberge said. Candidates have been interviewed and a new coach is expected to be named in early April.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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