The writing has been on scoreboards in Maine for at least a decade. There are too many mismatches in high school football.

Many programs caught on the losing side have seen steep declines in participation, causing them to seek shelter in a lower 11-man class or to opt for eight-man football.

On Thursday, the Maine Principals’ Association’s Football Committee made a commitment to help create more competitive regular-season schedules based on program strength – rather than enrollment classification – for the state’s 52 11-man programs.

“We would all like to not have schools bailing or moving (to a lower division),” said Massabesic High Athletic Director Brendan Scully, a member of the football committee and former varsity football coach. “What should happen is there should be drafts of schedules produced that maybe looked independent of classifications but looked at just the best matchups, and to get that in front of people so they can say ‘I can live with that or not live with that.'”

In its other major action during Thursday’s virtual meeting, the football committee approved setting a 33-player ceiling for eight-man football rosters.

There will not be a major overhaul of the current four-class system for 11-man football prior to the 2022 season. The set-up is expected to still be statewide divisions in Class A and Class D, with North and South divisions for classes B and C. The next reclassification cycle will be for the 2023 and 2024 seasons

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But the committee did acknowledge that seeking solutions to create more competitive games should be devised for this fall.

The football committee plans to set up an in-person, statewide scheduling meeting sometime in March, with representatives from all of the state’s leagues and conferences.

The MPA does not dictate schedules in any of the sports it sanctions, but MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham offered the MPA offices and his help as a facilitator for the proposed scheduling meeting.

“The fundamental question is, ‘Do you care more about eight games in the regular season with a competitive schedule or the postseason?” asked Dan O’Connell, the John Bapst athletic director and football coach and the coaches’ liaison to the committee. “In conversations I’ve had with some administrators and some coaches … there are some real opportunities if we’re not worried about classification.”

Since the eight-team statewide Class A was established prior to the 2019 season, there have been some crossover games between A and B schools to fill out the schedule of Class A programs. But schedules for most teams primarily consist of same-class opponents.

That can mean little relief for a team in a down cycle, particularly at the Class A level. Rumors have swirled for months that Edward Little, coming off consecutive 0-9 seasons, will ask to move to Class B. Lewiston (2-7 each of the past two seasons) and Sanford also have been pegged as schools looking for relief.

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None of those Class A schools has formally requested to move to a lower classification

Edward Little Athletic Director Todd Sampson said this week a drop in class is something to be considered, “but is not a decision for me to make in a vacuum.” Sampson said by the end of the 2021 season, Edward Little’s football roster was down to “the low 30s, grades 9-12. There were weeks where we couldn’t safely field a JV team.”

Jason Fuller, the athletic director at Lewiston, said he knows there is “scuttlebutt” about Lewiston moving to Class B but adamantly said that decision has not been made.

Both Lewiston and Edward Little are actively searching for new varsity coaches.

“I don’t want to move to Class B,” said Sanford Athletic Director Gordie Salls. “I want a more competitive schedule and I think that can be done.”

At this point, the only schools to make a formal request of the MPA to change classification in football are Cheverus and Gardiner.

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Cheverus announced its intention Wednesday to leave eight-man football and return to 11-man at the Class C level, even though it has a Class D enrollment.

Gardiner sent notification to the football committee on Wednesday that it wants to return to B North, after petitioning to play down last season in C South. Both of those requests are expected to be approved.

Maine high school football has produced blowouts at an alarming rate – and often roster size is a significant factor. While the established programs, most directed by veteran head coaches, have maintained and even grown their rosters, overall football participation declined 16.9 percent in Maine from 2008-17.

In 2021, the average margin of victory was 25.84 points in the regular season and 29.8 percent of the regular-season games were decided by 35 or more points.

EIGHT-MAN ROSTER CEILING

After much discussion, the football committee established that eight-man teams should not have a roster greater than 33 players. If a team does have a larger roster size, it will not be immediately forced to move to 11-man. Rather, the program will be put on a one-year notice that if its roster continues to be over the limit the following year, then the football committee could move the program into 11-man football, with the school able to appeal.

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Also, if an 11-man team has 23 or fewer players, the MPA will recommend playing eight-man football.

“What it boils down to is giving the committee the authority to make moves when integrity is being compromised,” Burnham said.

The committee acknowledged that a major impetus for setting roster limits was Cheverus’ 2021 season. The Stags won the Large School Division eight-man championship, not allowing a point over the final 22 quarters of the season and beating Waterville, 56-0, in the title game.

Cheverus was a consistent Class A football playoff participant through the 2018 season and participates in Class A or AA in other sports. Eight-man football was established to keep the sport at small schools and those with little tradition of football success.

“If it wasn’t Cheverus, would we have this conversation?” committee chair Fred Lower, the athletic director at Hampden Academy, asked at one point.

Scully noted the committee had discussed guidelines for eight-man inclusion prior to Cheverus winning the state title in November. “That situation has brought it to the forefront.”


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