Four-class plan for high school football not perfect, but workable

Two years of conversation, consternation and consideration have produced a four-class proposal for Maine high school football that while not pleasing to everyone is probably as close to being equitable for the masses as is possible given the landscape of the sport within the state.

Football has experienced gradual growth in Maine at the same time the overall student population has decreased.

Seventy-six programs now field varsity teams, with the newcomers largely coming from mid-sized and smaller schools — Ellsworth-Sumner, Camden Hills of Rockport, Hermon, Nokomis of Newport, Telstar of Bethel and Washington Academy of East Machias are among the most recent additions.

Most of the state’s larger schools are shrinking in enrollment, some to levels that leave such perennial Class A programs as Lawrence of Fairfield, Mt. Blue of Farmington and Skowhegan with little more than half the enrollments of the state’s largest school, Thornton Academy of Saco with its 1,395 students.

(Bangor High School, incidentally, is now the third-largest football-playing school in the state with an unofficial enrollment of 1,198 as of April 1, trailing Thornton Academy and Bonny Eagle of Standish).

Two years ago the Maine Principals’ Association football committee learned that individual-school and conference-related concerns were such that no agreement on a four-class format could be reached.

Since then more football people statewide have come to support a four-class concept, both in an effort to deal with the growth of the sport statewide and to try addressing the competitive balance between the strongest programs in each class and those struggling to maintain respectability.

Armed with two years of information and opinion, the football committee on Thursday unveiled a new proposal that seeks to address those issues while remaining consistent with how the MPA administers its other sports, with Eastern and Western Maine divisions in Classes A, B, C and D based on enrollment.

Schools have been classified in divisions based on their April 1, 2012 enrollments for the 2013-2014 cycle, and if they are not satisfied with where they are placed they will have the opportunity to petition to move up a class or move down a class — though if they move down they will not be eligible for postseason play.

While there has been considerable conjecture about numerous schools seeking to move up a class beyond where their enrollments dictate, my sense is such movement will be less than expected.

For while enrollment numbers may lie in the short term for a football-playing school with a rich tradition and strong feeder program, in the long term the reality of trying to compete against schools with several hundred more student-athletes to choose from likely will lead to struggles.

One major issue two years ago was how to divide Class A, with one school of thought urging a three-division, geographic-based alignment (essentially York County, Cumberland County, and the rest of Maine).

There was a concern among some Class A schools that they would not have an equal opportunity to qualify for the state championship game because of any regional postseason formula that would result from that three-division format.

Now there are just two divisions, East and West, proposed for Class A, and while the traditional Eastern Maine teams — Bangor, Brunswick, Edward Little of Auburn, Lewiston, Mount Ararat of Topsham and Oxford Hills of South Paris — also will have to beat out three Portland schools — Cheverus, Deering and Portland High — to win the EM title under the new plan, the opportunity to qualify for the state final is now equal so long as a program is good enough to beat its rivals both old and new.

And for old-time fans, the new Class A bears a great resemblance to the old Class AA, back when Bangor, Lewiston and EL did battle with the Portland-area schools more than a generation ago.

I expect Midcoast neighbors Camden Hills of Rockport and Oceanside of Rockland-Thomaston won’t be enamored of being moved from Eastern to Western Maine Class B, where the nearest road trips other than each other under the new classification proposal and traditional scheduling methods are to the Portland suburbs of Falmouth and Greely of Cumberland Center.

Perhaps Mt. Blue and Cony of Augusta would have been a better fit for those Western Maine slots, but that recommendation likely was an accommodation to those programs’ longstanding rivalries with the likes of Skowhegan, Messalonskee of Oakland and Lawrence, which under the new proposal also would be Eastern B schools.

Those on the enrollment fringes, particularly the smallest schools in each class (Gorham in Class A, Fryeburg Academy in Class B and Yarmouth in Class C under the current proposal), no doubt are feeling a bit unlucky these days, but there always is going to be a smallest school in one class with only slightly more enrollment than the biggest school in the next class.

And some will complain that there will remain a wide gulf between the haves and have-nots in each division, but when has that not been the case in virtually every sport at any level?

Ultimately that challenge is up to each school and each community involved to solve by building a competitive program from within.

Ernie Clark

About Ernie Clark

I'm a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, my coverage areas range from high school sports to mixed martial arts.