Strong opinions – mostly along school lines – were voiced about whether century-old rivals Deering and Portland should combine their high school football teams into one co-operative unit at Thursday’s community meeting.

Agreements did come through: a sharp decline in tackle football participation at the middle school level needs to be addressed immediately, and the best way to reverse the trend is to base seventh- and eighth-grade football at Portland’s three middle schools, as it was prior to 2012.

Eighty people attended the meeting at the PATHS school, titled “Football in the City of Portland,” along with both schools’ principals, athletic directors, head coaches and athletic trainers, and Jeanne Crocker, assistant superintendent of schools.

The key topic was: Should the high school teams be combined? In large part, Deering-connected parents at the meeting think it should happen. Deering expects to return up to 38 players (with 22 seniors). Attendees who identified themselves as being from Portland High tended to disagree, although Portland’s anticipated returning total is only 24.

“Twenty-four players, that’s not enough to have a varsity team, let alone a varsity and junior varsity,” said Joan Fortin, mother of Deering junior Michael Randall, who said her primary concern is overall player safety.

Fortin challenged school principals Gregg Palmer of Deering and Sheila Jepson of Portland to support combining the teams.

“You two are the two that have it in your hands to push this forward,” Fortin said.

Portland-based voices tended to emphasize the need to address the low numbers at the middle school – in 2012 there were 90 players and last season there were 36 – and pointed to Portland advancing to three of the last four Class A state championship games as proof there’s enough participation at the high school level to continue with separate teams.

“We have not dressed over 30 players for any of those championship games,” said Mike Rutherford, a Portland High grad and current assistant football coach. “The big issue is getting middle school football back in the schools. Invest in that.”

The 90-minute meeting concluded without a specific plan of action or the scheduling of another meeting, indicating no change is imminent.

“We’re here to listen tonight,” said Portland Principal Sheila Jepson. “We have a lot of work to do.”

“I don’t think we know what it’s going to look like going forward,” said Deering Principal Gregg Palmer. “For me, clearly, there are concerns around safety, participation, numbers coming up. If we don’t figure out the middle school piece we won’t have any programs, right? We have to solve that problem. I think what’s going to happen immediately is the most difficult question to answer.”

Dealing with low turnout for high school football is a statewide problem. This week the Maine Principals’ Association proposed forming two divisions for eight-man football.

“If this was a Deering-Portland-only problem, I would probably lean toward (combining teams),” said Deering Athletic Director Mel Craig. “Everyone is in the same boat.”

One attendee asked if the school administrators could define the right time to combine the programs.

“When we’ve exhausted everything else, and I don’t think we’ve done that,” O’Leary said.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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