Every couple of years, the Maine Principals’ Association goes through this classification square dance. Sport by sport, which schools will be placed in each class?

On Thursday, the MPA’s Classification Committee met to look at proposals for high school football, volleyball, basketball and soccer starting in the 2023-24 school year. Small tweaks were approved for football, while soccer plans were tabled for more study into a proposed division of small schools playing 8-on-8 soccer, rather than the traditional 11-on-11 game. A proposal to expanded volleyball from three classes to four was rightly rejected. A third class was recently added in 2017. While volleyball is growing in Maine, it still had just 45 teams participating last season and hasn’t grown at a pace to justify a fourth class yet.

Every couple of years, we see changes. Some are cosmetic, moving a few schools from one region to the other, or moving schools up or down one class. Sometimes there’s a bigger change, like when football added the eight-man game in 2019, or when basketball expanded to five classes in 2016.

There’s often handwringing when classification rears its head. School A is on the small side of its new class in terms of enrollment and doesn’t like the idea of playing against schools with hundreds more students. The discussion never gets to the real underlying problem.

Using enrollment as the sole determining factor for classification is an antiquated system.

It doesn’t work anymore. If we’re being honest, it probably never worked. But it presents the illusion of fairness, and once members of the committees stop haggling over cutoff numbers between classes, it’s relatively easy to stick with enrollment groupings.


Sure, enrollment is a factor in athletic success. The more students in the pool of athletes, the more likely talented ones will emerge. Nobody is saying Forest Hills of Jackman, with about 42 students, should be competing against Lewiston High and its 1,500 students.

But enrollment should be only a piece of the classification puzzle. Let’s make it 50%. The rest of it should include participation, success and local resources. If you don’t think socioeconomic factors play a part in athletic programs, you’re not seeing the truth.

Would a more complicated system be a lot of work? Yes. Would it be worth the effort? Absolutely.

There are schools and communities all across the state that take sports very seriously, with eyes on trophies and a championship-banner designer on retainer. There are others that treat sports as a nice complement to the educational experience, with no real attention paid to wins and losses. Neither approach is right or wrong, but it’s a factor and should be considered.

Yarmouth, with a thriving youth soccer culture that sees hundreds of children attend soccer camps and clinics coached by the high school players, could certainly compete in a top division against like-minded communities. The Waynflete boys’ tennis team has won 14 straight Class C state championships. The Flyers absolutely would be competitive in a higher class.

We already see schools choose to play up a class in some sports, but not others. The St. Dominic boys’ hockey team comes to mind. When the new football classification takes effect next fall, Cony and Lawrence will remain in Class B rather than slide to Class C, where they would have been placed based on enrollment.

Taking a broader approach toward classification would require schools to be honest with each other and with themselves.

When the new five-class basketball proposal, which included an expanded Class A and a statewide Class S for the smallest schools, was voted down by the Classification Committee, a four-class proposal was put forward. It wasn’t voted on Thursday, and the committee decided it needs to work with the MPA basketball committee to figure out a compromise. At first, second and third glance, the four-class proposal looked quite similar to what Maine high school basketball was like in 2015. You know, when that format was deemed untenable.

That’s what happens when enrollment does all the lifting without help from other factors. You move the numbers around to get a quick fix, then when that doesn’t work as well as you hoped, you do it again.

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