If you expected Monday’s meeting of the Maine Principals’ Association football committee to end with sweeping changes to the state’s high school football landscape, today you might be disappointed.

Change is coming to Maine high school football. It’s just coming in a small dose this time around.

Last season, 10 schools took part in the inaugural season of 8-man football. If each of the schools that expressed either an interest or a desire to play 8-man football in 2020 do so, the league’s size is going to more than double. Mt. Desert Island and Morse are locks for 8-man football, having had all the discussions at the local level. Waterville and Mount View plan to play 8-man football next fall, pending school board approval that was expected to come Monday night. Washington Academy, Houlton, Stearns, Camden Hills, Spruce Mountain, Mountain Valley and Dirigo are still having local discussions.

Orono, Lake Region and Nokomis were mentioned as other 8-man football possibilities. The committee will give all schools until Feb. 28 to make a decision. The football committee recommended the cutoff between the large and small school divisions of 8-man football be raised from 350 students to 374, to more evenly distribute the growing number of participating schools. Each division will play for its own state championship.

A growing 8-man league mans something else is shrinking. In this case, it’s Class D, and by a significant amount. In 2020, Class D could have eight or nine teams, depending on what Orono, which scuttled its varsity season in the preseason last year, decides to do. Before Class D fans waste any time hand-wringing about being lumped into Class C, relax. In 2020, Class D will be statewide, like the eight-team Class A season that was played in 2019.

The question is raised, though, how long can the MPA support four classes of 11-man football? To have one class of just eight teams while Classes B and C competed with 20 or more teams felt off. Having two teeny tiny classes as 11-man football bookends just feels awful.

It’s also the best approach for the upcoming season. With the 2020 season the second year of a two-year classification cycle, it makes sense for the MPA football committee to hold off on making sweeping, wholesale changes. To roll the remaining Class D teams into a larger Class C, or play with the cutoff numbers between classes and move larger Class C schools up to Class B now would invite more chaos than necessary. It could even spur programs that had not considered 8-man football to do so.

Dodging competition is not the intent of the 8-man league, and never should be. For the programs playing 8-man now, or planning a move there next season, it’s about keeping football viable. In a few years, we’ll see some of these programs regrow and improve and move back into 11-man competition. Other schools will make the move to 8-man, and some may find it the best fit for long term football life. Why buy a large truck when all you need or can afford is a sedan? The 8-man league never should be seen as a failure by any school.

After next season, the football committee has some real work to do. Two classes of eight teams is a bandage, not a solution. A return to three classes of 11-man football, with two divisions of 8-man, is something to consider.

The fact that more than 20 schools could be playing 8-man football next season is a good sign. It’s a sign that schools are taking the new option seriously, and they’re taking the survival of their football programs seriously.

Fewer athletes are playing high school football nationwide. Maybe that trend will change. For now, 8-man football is the right thing to ensure more Maine athletes get the opportunity.

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