The Gardiner Tigers carry flags as they run onto Hoch Field for their first official football game on the new field turf surface on Sept. 9, 2022. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

With a busy high school season in the rearview mirror, July provides a chance for a breather for us sports scribes. There are some periodical reminders, though, that the return of a busy season will be here in the blink of an eye.

On the first day of the month, a message from my editor came up on my phone: “44 days until fall sports teams start practicing. Carry on.” It was a joke, of course, as we all had sunshine, good food and fun with family and friends on our minds as Fourth of July weekend began rather than a workday a month and a half away.

The joke, though, was on him — I was ready right then and there for some football. I always am as this time of year rolls around, and when I start thinking about football, I start thinking how the teams stack up, what some of the top matchups might be and how the leagues stack up amidst ever-changing realignment.

In Maine high school football, that last part is something that plays a big role every year. From eight-man football to region-less classes to out-of-state games, the landscape of the sport is now vastly different than it was a decade ago. Many of those changes have proved beneficial, but as August approaches, seeing four classes of 11-man football has me scratching my head.

2019 brought some interesting changes to Maine high school football, which had existed as a four-class league since the addition of Class D in 2013. Yes, there was the introduction of eight-man football that year, but the impact of that new format on the existing 11-man classes wasn’t immediately a strong one (yet). But Class A went from a 14-team classification split into two regions to a region-less one that consisted of just eight teams, something that annoyed many right from the jump.

The return of high school football in 2021 after a 2020 campaign lost to the pandemic saw eight-man more than double in size, and this time, the shakeup in the smaller 11-man classes was a major one. Now, Class D was also a single-division league with eight teams. The chatter amongst coaches and my media colleagues at the time chalked up that classification cycle as a one-off, something likely to be fixed the following cycle with a return to three 11-man classes.


That should have happened, but it didn’t as Class A and Class D remained eight-team leagues in 2022. It should have happened again this year with many coaches clamoring for it, and although a step in the right direction was made with the elimination of the eight-team statewide leagues, there are still four classes and eight regions for a state with 50 11-man football teams.

If that seems like it doesn’t make much sense, that’s because it doesn’t. We live in a small state, after all, and here we are with one more football class than Nevada, as many as Connecticut and Kentucky and one fewer than Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota and Missouri — all larger states with hundreds more football teams.

Championships, state and regional, are supposed to mean something. It should be difficult to reach those games, much less win them. That’s something that becomes easier, not harder, when divisions become watered down to barely a dozen teams as has happened in Maine high school football over the past several years. 

Simply put, handing out six Gold Balls in a state that has 78 football teams is senseless. That’s something that administrators need to come to terms with at some point going forward; most coaches, at least from my conversations, are already there. It was one thing in 2021 following COVID-19. Two years later, though, it hasn’t changed.

It’s understandable for programs to want to do what’s in their best interest, and for many 11-man teams, there’s a feeling that the existence of four 11-man classes levels the playing field. There come circumstances, though, when bowing to all of those interests has a negative impact on the landscape as a whole. I believe we’ve reached that point.

Declining numbers could deal further blows to 11-man football in Maine, too. Each year since eight-man’s introduction, we’ve seen more teams join the fold. Should that happen, dropping a fourth 11-man class will become even more necessary to prevent class sizes that are already too small to continue to shrink. Eight-man football was not on the horizon when Class D was introduced, but now, the picture is different.

Competitiveness concerns? Nonsense. In Class D, Foxcroft and Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale both defeated multiple Class C foes last season, while Freeport shut out eventual C North champ Medomak Valley 19-0. Class C state champion Leavitt took down Class B Lawrence, Mt. Blue and Portland and Class A Lewiston. The balance of power in a three-class 11-man system with two classes of 16 and one of 18 wouldn’t be all that different.

That’s not to say there won’t be a few losers in this scenario, but such is going to be the case regardless of how any reclassification cycle shakes out. A more sensible line in the sand has to be drawn somewhere, and when it finally is, the result will be a Maine high school football landscape that’s better than one that crowns twice as many state champions as it did 11 years ago.

Comments are not available on this story.