Well, it’s official. High school football in Maine is broken. Smashed into a thousand little pieces.

That said, Maine high school football is not broken beyond repair. Part of the football classification plan approved by the Maine Principals’ Association general membership Thursday morning is a major positive step forward. Eight-man football is a welcome addition to Maine’s high school football landscape. It will give the 10 schools taking part in the upcoming inaugural season a chance to continue playing football. There’s a buzz surrounding 8-man football, and it will be exciting to watch the new football option take shape.

But in reclassifying the traditional 11-player leagues, the MPA used a sledgehammer when the proper tool was a scalpel.

Next fall, Class A will include just eight schools. Class B, on the other hand, will include 22. High schools across the state are facing enrollment declines. Class A already was the smallest of the state’s four football classes with 14 members last season. In recent seasons, Class A has been dominated by three programs that have become juggernauts: Thornton Academy, Bonny Eagle, and Scarborough. Those three programs have accounted for the last seven Class A state titles. When you look at the scores of their games, it seems the only close competition they’ve had in the last few years is each other, even in the playoffs. Only one of those seven gold balls was won in a game decided by a less than a touchdown.

Maine has never seen three football programs this much better than the rest of the field. An earlier classification plan called for Class A to lower the enrollment standard and grow, thereby giving teams unhappy with a schedule that contains all three powerhouses flexibility in scheduling opponents that would provide more competitive games.

Instead, the MPA led a group of large schools who have struggled to win games in recent seasons, or think they may struggle to win games in the next few, set the tone for the entire state. Dropping to Class B are Windham, Deering, and Massabesic (each with enrollments of more than 900 students), as well as Portland and South Portland. Portland and Deering make the move thanks to a bookkeeping trick. In the past, the enrollment of Casco Bay High School — whose students can play sports at either Portland or Deering — was halved and added to the enrollment of the two bigger schools. Now, Casco Bay is considered a co-op school to Portland and Deering, meaning the addition to enrollment is determined by how many students compete in a sport.

This smells. This reeks of big schools playing loose with the math because they no longer want to try to compete with slightly bigger schools that have pounded them into the turf in recent seasons. When the MPA went to four classes in 2013, this was not the intention. Class B was not built to be an island of misfit toys unable or unwilling to compete in Class A anymore. It shouldn’t be that way now. A solution: return to three classes, while continue allowing inter-class scheduling. Worry less about chasing gold balls and more about the overall viability of high school football.

No matter what enrollment magic Portland and Deering pull, they are not Class B schools, in size or culture. They are Class A programs struggling with football participation, and that certainly does not make them unique. Portland played in three of the last four Class A state championship games. Even assuming the Bulldogs are hit hard by graduation in the 2019 season and take a step back from contention, that’s hardly a reason to drop into Class B.

The football committee has a difficult job. No matter what it does, somebody is not going to be happy. The decision to gut Class A football because a group of large southern Maine schools decided they no longer want to play the toughest competition is not good for high school football in Maine. On top of that, it does nothing to dissuade those of the opinion that the MPA bends over to the whims of southern schools. If anything, it strengthens that argument.

Let’s talk about the Big Three: Thornton Academy, Bonny Eagle, and Scarborough. What they have in common is simple: commitment and consistency. Thornton Academy athletic director Gary Stevens said this year is the first in his 12 years at the Saco school in which he’s had to hire a new coach to the football staff. Stevens was the AD at Bonny Eagle when Kevin Cooper was brought on to build the Scots football program from scratch. In 2004, when Bonny Eagle defeated Bangor to win its first state championship (the Scots now have six gold balls, the most recent coming in 2016), Stevens and Cooper chatted on the Fitzpatrick Stadium turf amid the victory celebration. Could you ever imagine this when you started the program, Stevens asked his coach.

Cooper’s answer was simple, and telling. Yes.

Under Cooper, Bonny Eagle put in the work. The same can be said for Thornton Academy under coach Kevin Kezal, and Scarborough under coach Lance Johnson. Look at what Oxford Hills is doing under coach Mark Soehren. The Vikings have shown steady improvement, falling to Portland, 21-14 in the Class A North championship game last fall. It has taken a few years, but Oxford Hills got better. Maybe in a few years, the Vikings will be the team others try to avoid, like Thornton, Bonny Eagle, and Scarborough now. Like Cheverus 10 years ago. You notice you haven’t heard any of the “Cheverus recruits” nonsense lately?

Building and maintaining a successful football program is hard. Dropping a class is easy. This time, unfortunately, the MPA took the easy way out.


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