Bucksport’s Jaxon Gross looks to stiff-arm Oak Hill’s D’Andre Daniels during a high school football game Oct. 2 in Wales. Bucksport, a founding member of the Little Ten Conference, will move to the eight-man football ranks this fall. The Golden Bucks have played in Class D since 2013 and previously played in Class C. ANDREE KEHN PHOTO/SUN JOURNAL

Bucksport football team to move to 8-man ranks in 2022

BUCKSPORT — It’s the time of year when the Maine high school football landscape always seems to change — and this year, those changes will once again affect a Hancock County team in a major way.

Bucksport will move to eight-man football for the 2022 season following a vote at the most recent Regional School Unit 25 School Board meeting. The reclassification represents a new chapter for the Golden Bucks, who boast one of the region’s most prestigious football programs.

Bucksport, a founding member of the Little Ten Conference, played in a statewide Class D last fall after several LTC counterparts bolted for the eight-man ranks. Although the departures of teams such as Dexter, Mattanawcook Academy, Mount View, Orono and Stearns/Schenck left the Golden Bucks in a different environment, numbers in the 30s gave the team a good reason to remain 11-man.

That numbers situation, though, has now changed. Although Bucksport’s projected roster size looks to be around 33 players this year, Athletic Director Aaron Ward said, it will drop to 26 in 2023 and 25 in 2024. Ward cited that impending decline as one of the primary factors precipitating the move to eight-man football.

Bucksport’s Aziz Younes attempts to tackle Winthrop/Monmouth’s Logan Baird during a high school football game Sept. 3 in Winthrop. Although Bucksport’s roster sizes have remained in the 30s over the past several years, the Golden Bucks’ numbers are projected to dip into the 20s in 2023 and 2024. FILE PHOTO

“It’s never an easy decision making this kind of thing, but ultimately, we felt it was one that was in the best interest of the program based on the facts and what we looked at,” Ward said. “That boiled down to athlete safety, first and foremost, and then also looking at those numbers and the projections over the next four years.”

With the majority of its traditional LTC foes gone in 2021, Bucksport had limited options for opponents. Aside from a trip to Foxcroft, the only other former LTC team to remain in Class D last fall, the Bucks averaged round-trip journeys of nearly 180 miles for two road games against Winthrop/Monmouth, one against Oak Hill (Wales) and one against Lisbon.

Making the move to eight-man football will help ease those travel strains. It will also allow for the returns of some of the team’s traditional LTC rivalries as well as games against Hancock County brethren Ellsworth/Sumner and Mount Desert Island.

“For me, that was one of the factors; I miss playing against the teams we had always played against,” said Bucksport head coach Joel Sankey. “Going to some of the places we went to play last year, you kind of felt like you were out of place, like you really didn’t belong. … Being able to play some of the teams we’ve always played against again is going to be a huge positive.”

The decision to go to eight-man, Ward said, had been on the table since he became athletic director at Bucksport in 2020. That might have been tough to fathom at the time given that the Golden Bucks were fresh off a Northern Maine championship, but looking ahead, the aforementioned numbers dilemma was looming.

Entering the March 30 school board meeting, then, there was a clear consensus among Bucksport administration and coaching staff that moving to eight-man football was the right play. The proposal drew a fair amount of opposition from the general public, but in the end, the board voted in favor of the move.

“I think when you removed the emotion from it and purely looked at the facts, I think there was no question this was the right choice,” Ward said. “I think everyone would want to stay 11-man, but when you look at the facts, that’s what we felt was best. That’s what I asked the school board to think about.”

The move to eight-man was also discussed prior to the 2021 season. With COVID-19 wiping out 2020, Bucksport lost out on a year of valuable experience. Although the Golden Bucks were fairly competitive in 2021 despite going 2-6 — only one game, a 55-12 loss to Foxcroft in the regular season finale, was a blowout — the team faced issues that eight-man would serve to neutralize.

Bucksport’s Cam Soper tackles Dexter’s Justin Wing during the 2019 Class D North championship football game at Hampden Academy. Bucksport will reunite with former LTC opponents such as Dexter, Mattanawcook Academy and Orono and Stearns in the eight-man ranks. FILE PHOTO

“Our line was inexperienced, we had no depth, and then we had a lot of injuries that really hurt us, and that’s harder when you have to put 11 guys on the field,” Sankey said. “We debated it before last season and decided to stay 11-man, but when we debated it again, we felt eight-man was the way to go this time.”

Based on current enrollment, Bucksport would play in the Small-School North division of eight-man football this fall. That would put the Golden Bucks with Dexter, Mattanawcook, Mount View, Orono, Stearns/Schenck and Washington Academy, though that alignment is far from final with other teams making potentially making their own moves to eight-man.

The eight-man format, which came to Maine in 2019, has surged in popularity since its inaugural year. The number of teams playing eight-man football jumped from 10 in its first season to 25 in 2021. With Bucksport, Ellsworth/Sumner and MDI all eight-man, there are no 11-man teams left in Hancock County.

“I think we’ll see more teams trickling down to eight-man,” Ward said. “For the kids that are passionate about football and want to keep playing, this is a way we can still give them the sport they enjoy. I think a lot of schools are forced to take a look every year now and evaluate what’s best for their programs.”

Both Ward and Sankey added that moving to eight-man will give Bucksport an opportunity to play a full junior varsity schedule over the next few years. The Golden Bucks played just three JV games in 2021 as mounting injuries thrust some of its younger players into the varsity fold.

Given Bucksport’s numbers issue, the Golden Bucks will remain an eight-man team through at least the 2024 season. Although the new code will mean a different look to a game that has long been a tradition in Bucksport, a conversation Sankey had with another head coach suggests the move could also generate some excitement.

“I talked to Bobby Sinclair at Orono, and he says it’s the greatest thing Orono football has ever done. It’s kept football alive there, and the kids and the community love it,” Sankey said. “I think we can be competitive in eight-man football, and at the end of the day, it’s still about blocking, tackling and executing.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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