Eight-man football could be coming to Maine as soon as 2019. It’s just a matter of which high schools might opt for it.

“At first glance, I’d say most of Class E and seven teams in Class D North,” would be willing to make the switch, said Dean Plante, Old Orchard Beach High’s athletic director and football coach. “It’s something we’re very, very strongly going to consider. We would be foolish not to. Our numbers are never terrible but we have a small school with limited student-athletes.”

The Maine Principals’ Association is exploring the possibility of an eight-man football league that would play for a championship – an alternative for some schools playing the traditional 11-man version of the sport. Seventeen states offered eight-man football in 2016, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The key reason for eight-man football, obviously, is that fewer players are needed to play. Proponents cite declining high school enrollments (down 16.8 percent statewide from 2006-07 to 2015-16), with many schools struggling to maintain football rosters with as many as 25 players. While a team with 20 players is unable to hold full 11-on-11 practices, an eight-man squad would have a full two-deep lineup with four additional reserves.

Eight-man football is played without two interior linemen and one back found in traditional football. Fields are typically 120 feet wide instead of 160 feet, while the length can remain 100 yards or be reduced to 80. It is common to reduce the width and maintain the 100-yard distance.

“I think it’s got some legs and it makes sense,” Plante said. “I’m waiting to hear the argument against it. Because the field is easily adjusted. You don’t have to move the goal posts. It’s not cost prohibitive.”

Old Orchard will move this fall from Class D to Class E, the development football division created in 2017 to aid programs struggling to remain competitive with small rosters. The Seagulls have consistently fielded teams with 30 or more players and have 31 on the roster this season. But OOB graduated 16 seniors from its 2017 team and, as Plante pointed out, has a football program with one of the state’s smallest enrollments.

Other candidates for eight-man football might include Class E schools Telstar, Boothbay, Traip Academy, Dirigo and Sacopee Valley. Sacopee Valley is the largest school with 332 students.

“I don’t want to speak for anyone that this school or that school is ready to jump into eight-man football but the casual conversation is there are schools that are certainly interested,” said Brendan Scully, chair of the MPA’s Football Committee and the athletic director at Massabesic High.

Telstar, Boothbay, Sacopee and Traip have had to suspend their varsity team at some point in the previous five seasons. Last season those programs’ rosters ranged from 18 to 25 players.

Two current Class E schools – Freeport and Camden Hills – intend to stay in the 11-man ranks.

Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels has said he believes the Falcons’ roster will be competitive to return to Class C in the near future.

Camden, with 667 students, is the largest school in Class E. Camden halted its varsity program midway through the 2015 season.

“This year we’ve had the best numbers we’ve had in my six years. We had 27, 28 kids on the first day and we know some were still away,” said Camden Athletic Director Steve Alex. “I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner and we wouldn’t need to go that (eight-man) route. What we’re really hoping for is to be successful in Class E this year and start going back up the (classification) ladder.”

In Class D North, Stearns/Schenck, Orono and Washington Academy each had 23-player rosters last season.

Bucksport Coach Joel Sankey, entering his 24th season, thinks his Class D program is still strong enough to play 11-man football with over 30 players this season for a school with 300 students. But Sankey also remembers when Bucksport’s school enrollment was twice as large and he had varsity rosters of 50-60 players plus 25-player freshmen squads.

“I do think (eight-man) is a reality,” Sankey said, “and it would help save some teams. I don’t know how Stearns does it. Orono’s numbers are so low for a team with the success they’ve had.”

If eight-man is adopted, Class E will likely be phased out.

“I think that’s the way we’re looking at it now; with four classes and a fifth class for eight-man football,” Scully said. “It’s early in the conversation. Some things will change as the conversation goes on.”

MPA assistant executive directors Mike Burnham and Mike Bisson will spearhead those conversations before the football committee meets in mid-October.

“The committee has made a decision to move forward with trying to establish an eight-man football league,” Burnham said. “In our travels, Mike (Bisson) and I will try to get out to every league in the fall and try to generate as many questions as we can.”

In addition to MPA football programs, there are club football teams for high school athletes in northern Maine playing in the Maine Independent Football League. They are located in Presque Isle, China, Damariscotta and Madawaska. The league uses an 11-man format but Stu Wyckoff, president of the Presque Isle-based Aroostook Huskies, is a long time advocate of eight-man football. Wyckoff said it is unlikely any MIFL teams could quickly transition to eight-man MPA programs because the area schools have not indicated an interest in having varsity football.

Both Scully and Burnham emphasized that the MPA does not want to dictate what schools must play in eight-man. Rather, they want to create an alternative MPA-sanctioned league with an official championship.

“That’s another thing that’s important, that we recognize it as viable, that it’s looked at as a true football championship,” Burnham said. “When you look around the country, that’s what other states are doing.”

In Michigan, eight-man football has quickly gained credibility, growing from eight teams in 2010 to an expected 68 this fall, with 64 eligible for playoffs, said Jeff Kimmerly, media coordinator for the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Of that group, only one school is new to football.

About 540 schools in Michigan play 11-man football. To be eligible for the eight-man playoffs, a school must be classified in Michigan’s smallest of four divisions, which this year means an enrollment of fewer than 193 students.

“It’s a very similar story to Maine,” Kimmerly said. “We have a lot of smaller schools in our state in rural areas where enrollment has gone down. They want to keep football. Football is a huge part of their communities and they want to keep it.”

The initial switch from 11-man to eight-man football caused short-lived angst in some Michigan communities.

“Certainly there’s a perception of, ‘this isn’t real football. Why are we doing this?'” Kimmerly said. “But usually by the end of the season, particularly if they had success and hadn’t had it in a long time, people bought in. Any time a community makes a switch, there’s a few naysayers out there but at the end of the day it’s a way to keep football in your community.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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