Interest in eight-man football is growing so rapidly that the Maine Principals’ Association is having to revise its timetable for structuring the 2020 football season.

At least 15 high schools, perhaps 16, want to make the switch from 11-man football to eight-man for the 2020 season. They would join 10 teams that formed Maine’s inaugural eight-man league last fall.

That would mean roughly one in three football programs in Maine would be playing eight-man football – creating scheduling challenges for the remaining 11-man teams, particularly in Classes C and D.

At a meeting in January, the MPA’s Football Committee was told to expect 11 to 14 new eight-man teams this fall. Schools were given a Feb. 28 deadline to report if they intend to play eight-man football, with hopes that the committee could establish a proposal for review at the MPA Classification meeting next Monday.

But on Wednesday, MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said the Football Committee will need to meet again later this month before it can put together a proposal.

Issues that need to be addressed include looking at the growing list of schools that want to switch to eight-man; having a conversation about establishing criteria for switching to eight-man; and how to address the rapid decline in Class D 11-man programs.

Some schools are still in the decision-making process, however, or only recently announced their plans.

In the past week, Orono and Mattanawcook Academy said they want to play eight-man, joining former Class D North teams Washington Academy, Mt. View, Houlton and Stearns. Orono did not play varsity football in 2019.

On Wednesday night, Dexter High’s administration was scheduled to request that its school board approve a move to eight-man football. In 2019, Dexter went 8-2, losing to Bucksport, 46-8, in the Class D North final.

“If all those schools had stayed in 11-man football, we would have happily stayed,” said Dexter Principal Stephen Bell. “But once all those other schools left and we started looking at reality, it kind of pushed our thought. Then Mattanawcook did the same thing, a similar program with similar numbers.”

Class D South teams that plan to move to eight-man are Camden Hills, Spruce Mountain, Mountain Valley, and Dirigo. Dirigo canceled its 2019 season after one game, but received a waiver from the MPA on Jan. 23 to be able to return to varsity play this fall.

The only Class D schools left in the 11-man ranks are Bucksport and Foxcroft Academy from the North, and defending state champion Lisbon/St. Dominic, Oak Hill, Madison/Carrabec, and Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale from the South. The plan coming out of the January meeting was to have a statewide Class D, but that assumed Mattanawcook and Dexter would still play 11-man.

At Lake Region in Naples, Athletic Director Paul True said he would make a final decision on Friday. For Lake Region, which played in Class C South, the issue has little to do with which teams it will compete against. Rather, Lake Region is facing the problem that led many of the original 10 eight-man schools to make the switch: a dangerously small roster size.

True said he expects only 14 players to return from last year’s 26-player roster. Three incoming eighth-graders have played football.

“We’re really not looking at the competitive aspect at all,” True said. “It’s completely internal, completely based on our numbers right now in our football program.”

The other schools planning to play eight-man are Cheverus from Class B South; Mt. Desert Island and Waterville from C North; and Morse from C South.

When so many teams move to eight-man, it creates holes in other schools’ schedules. For Poland, a Class C South team that went 1-7, it’ll lose the only two opponents from its 2019 schedule that were comparably skilled.

“Last year, we had a close loss to Spruce Mountain and we beat Lake Region. Those two schools are going eight-man,” said Don King, Poland’s athletic director. “The other six games were running-time affairs in the second half. That leaves a pretty tough schedule for us.”

King said he anticipates having a roster in the mid-30s, with more than 20 returnees. Poland wants to stay at the 11-man level but would welcome a shift to Class D.

“That would serve us, and it would also serve those Class D schools that need to fill a schedule,” King said.

Burnham said he believes it’s important to maintain Class D, both for the immediate benefit of the remaining small-school programs, and as a possible pathway for eight-man teams to return to the 11-man ranks.

Bucksport Coach Joel Sankey said he has heard that some current Class C schools would be shifted to Class D.

“The problem is to decide who those teams would be,” Sankey said.

But at Lisbon, Coach Chris Kates said he believes 11-man football will soon return to the three-class system used from 1987-2012.

“It’s just speculation on my part, but you’ll probably see a move more to a three-class system like we always had,” Kates said. “Depending on where you draw the line, we’d be playing a lot of teams we played before. We’re not going to make excuses. All you can really do, rather than mope around, is get better and play who they put in front of you.”

UPDATE: This story was updated on March 5 at 1:50 p.m. to show that Dirigo High has received a waiver from the MPA to be able to play varsity football this fall.


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