It may be too much to label Friday night’s Pine Tree Conference Class A football game between the Lawrence Bulldogs and Bangor at Keyes Field in Fairfield the end of an era.
There’s a reasonable chance these schools — winners of five of the last six Eastern Maine Class A championships — could meet again in a playoff setting two months from now.
But there’s an even greater chance that after this year they will not meet again for the foreseeable future, their rivalry a casualty of current population trends.
The Maine Principals’ Association is working to add a fourth football class statewide for the first time since the format was reduced to three classes in 1987.
The move seeks to address to the increasing number of schools fielding varsity teams, which currently stands at 76.
That growth has defied the gradual decrease in student enrollment statewide as typified by Lawrence, which would be one of the smaller schools in Eastern Maine Class B under the proposal now under consideration.
With 712 students as of April 1, Lawrence is larger than only Brewer (709) and Nokomis of Newport (704) among schools currently slotted for a four-class Eastern B.
While Bangor’s enrollment also has declined, it remains among the state’s largest schools with 1,198 students as of April 1 and will remain in Class A.
Lawrence could petition the MPA to play up a class under the four-class proposal, and the combination of recent on-field success and community pride might make such a move a popular response to the pending transition.
It’s more likely the Bulldogs will opt to play where their enrollment suggests they should play, in Class B against the likes of regional rivals Skowhegan, Messalonskee of Oakland, Cony of Augusta and Mt. Blue of Farmington, some of whom were opponents in a previous four-class world.
Before 1987, Bangor often traveled to southern Maine to face the likes of Sanford, Deering of Portland, South Portland and Westbrook to fill out its regular-season schedule — a scenario that looms anew in a four-class future with Deering, Cheverus of Portland and Portland High School all being targeted to join Eastern A.
At the same time, Lawrence and the other Pine Tree Conference schools of that era — including Skowhegan, Mt. Blue, Gardiner, Belfast, Waterville and Winslow — competed for the Class B state title.
And while Bangor-Lawrence now represents one of the more anticipated games in Eastern Maine each year, the intensity of their current football rivalry is a somewhat recent phenomenon, beginning perhaps in 2005 when the Bulldogs rallied from a 14-0 deficit for a 27-14 victory that marked the program’s return to prominence.
Were Lawrence to petition up to Class A in a future four-class arrangement, its current enrollment would leave it more than 100 students behind the next smallest school save for Cheverus, a private school of 519 students that traditionally plays a Class A schedule in all sports.
And no matter the quality of the current varsity team or the youth football program that supports it, sooner or later the enrollment differential likely would catch up with the Bulldogs.
That Lawrence has won one state title and three Eastern A titles in the last six years and has a legitimate chance to go out on top again this fall is a credit to current head coach John Hersom and his team, as well as all the preceding players, coaches and fans who have perpetuated “Bulldog Pride” for generations.
It’s a model to be respected, no matter the class.