2019-02-07 / News

Football division gets boost from MPA committee

By Steve Craig and Travis Lazarczyk Varsity Maine

The debut of eight-man football in Maine this fall is nearing the goal line. The change would feature would feature 10 high schools divided into two enrollment divisions. One division would include schools with more than 350 students — Ellsworth, Mt. Ararat, Yarmouth, Gray-New Gloucester and Maranacook — and the other for smaller schools — Boothbay, Old Orchard Beach, Sacopee Valley, Telstar and Traip Academy.

Each division would have a playoff, with the winner of each meeting for a state championship. The recommendation was approved unanimously Thursday by the Maine Principals’ Association’s Football Committee, but it still has a few administrative hurdles to clear to become reality. Any changes would have to be approved by the MPA’s general membership in the spring.

The decision to add eight-man football comes at a time when many schools are struggling to keep their programs afloat. Participation in football in Maine high schools dropped 16.9 percent from 2008-17. Eight-man football in 18 states in 2017,according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, but that version of the sport never has been sponsored before by the MPA. The vast majority of Maine high school teams will continue to play 11-man football. Those teams would be divided into four classes based on enrollment, with the classes split into north and south divisions.

Proposed tweaks to the enrollment cutoffs are causing concern, particularly at the largest level, Class A. The cutoff for Class A would drop from 845 students last fall to 780 in 2019, moving defending Class B champion Marshwood – along with Noble, Gorham and Skowhegan – into A to create an 18-team division. Marshwood and Skowhegan have fewer than 800 students. Thornton Academy, the largest school in the state and the defending Class A champion, has 1,476 students.

“We’ll stay wherever they place us but I can tell you I don’t feel (the proposal) is fair for all involved,” said Marshwood Athletic Director Rich Buzzell. “Specifically the difference in enrollment figures of the teams playing in the same classes. From top to bottom in A is a 700-kid difference. Noble and Gorham won five and four games, respectively, last season after struggling to be competitive for years. Noble won 16 games in 11 seasons from 2007-2017. Gorham had one win between 2012-2016.

“Noble and Gorham have made some pretty good strides but now you’re talking about potentially devastating their programs,” Buzzell said.

Oxford Hills Coach Mark Soehren said adding teams to Class A will create more competitive games.

“With the bigger Class A, that’s going to happen. I understand pulling some smaller teams in, there might be a slight disadvantage. The truth is, I watched Marshwood play. They’re outstanding. Way back, we played Skowhegan. They’ll be able to compete. There’s always going to be some teams on those edges with a slight disadvantage,” Soehren said.

Class B would include schools with enrollment between 556 and 779 students. This moves defending Class C champ Nokomis and runner-up Fryeburg Academy up to Class B.

Class C would be for schools with enrollment between 420 and 555 students. Class D champ Wells moves up to Class C with this change.

Class D would feature schools with enrollment below 420 students. Wells is on a 28-game win streak and won the 2016 Class C title before going undefeated in two Class D seasons. Warriors Coach Tim Roche said he likes the look of the new Class C South, which includes familiar foes York and Cape Elizabeth.

“I feel we can compete where they put us,” Roche said. “I’ve always said in this process, no matter how they do this, there’s going to be some unhappy teams. There’s no way to satisfy all of us but Wells isn’t sitting here saying it’s unhappy.

I think that’s a pretty good league for us.”

Football Committee chair Brendan Scully, the athletic director at Massabesic High School in Waterboro, acknowledged that no plan is perfect, but added Thursday's recommendation is in the best interest for Maine high school football.

“No matter where we move lines, somebody is in a bad place,” Scully said. The Football Committee also passed a rule that would require an 11-man team to move to eight-man football the following season if it fails to fully complete a game or season. Also, 11-man programs will be allowed to move to eight-man by their own choice in 2020. Eight-man football is played with two fewer linemen and one less receiver or running back on offense.

The field width is usually reduced from 53 yards, 12 inches to 40 yards but the field usually remains 100 yards long.

Some eight-man teams would have to increase their travel. For instance, it takes 21/2 hours to get from Ellsworth to Yarmouth, and over three hours from Ellsworth to Traip Academy in Kittery.

Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost said that’s a small sacrifice for a more competitive football experience.

“For us it would be four travel (dates). It’s not like nine for basketball or 10 to 12 for wrestling,” Frost said.

The committee also voted to determine football playoff seeding using Crabtree Points, rather than Heal Points, which were used for the last two seasons.

While Heal Points reward wins, Crabtree Points, reward playing stronger opponents. Under the committee’s proposal, Greely is listed as being a co-operative partner with Falmouth next fall. Greely has been wrestling with how to preserve football for its students since the 2018 season ended but has not made a decision, said David Shapiro, the school’s athletic director.

“That will come sometime in March after all the chips have settled,” Shapiro said. It is unclear how many Greely students want to play football. Last season the Rangers had 10 seniors on a 22-player roster.

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