By Travis Lazarczyk
Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel
AUGUSTA — After months of discussion and debate, eight-man football in Maine is at the goal line.
The Maine Principals’ Association Football Committee voted unanimously Thursday to recommend an eight-man football class for the 2019 season. The debut of eight-man football would place programs in two divisions based on enrollments.
Schools with enrollment above 350 would include Ellsworth, Mount Ararat, Yarmouth, Gray-New Gloucester and Maranacook. A division of 350 and fewer students would consist of Boothbay, Old Orchard Beach, Sacopee Valley, Telstar and Traip Academy. Each division will have a playoff, and the winners of each will meet for a state championship.
Mount Desert Island, which expressed interest in eight-man football in January, will instead remain in Class C; Bucksport will remain in Class D.
The Football Committee’s recommendation will be considered next by the MPA’s Classification Committee on Feb. 11. That committee will hear appeals filed by individual schools in March.
The remaining 11-man teams would continue to be divided into four classes based on enrollment, but tweaks to the enrollment cutoffs raised concerns, particularly at the Class A level. The cutoff for Class A drops from 845 students to 780. With this change, defending Class B champion Marshwood moves to Class A along with Noble, Gorham and Skowhegan.
“We’ll stay wherever they place us, but I can tell you I don’t feel [the proposal] is fair for all involved,” Marshwood Athletic Director Rich Buzzell said. “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.”
Class B will include schools with enrollments of 556-779 students. This moves defending Class C champion Nokomis and runner-up Fryeburg Academy up to Class B.
Class C will be schools with enrollment of 420-555 students. Class D champ Wells moves up to Class C with this change. Class D will feature schools with enrollment below 420 students.
Eight-man football, which is played with two fewer linemen and one less receiver and running back on offense, has emerged as an alternative for programs struggling to maintain roster sizes large enough to keep teams competitive and players safe.
Participation in football decreased 16.9 percent at Maine high schools from 2008 to 2017. Last season, several schools struggled to dress more than 20 players for varsity games.
“I think the groundwork’s been put in place by the committee and the MPA to kind of curb that lowering number of participation across the state. I think eight-man is a good thing,” said Medomak Valley head coach Ryan Snell. “I think it will work well for schools. People will see that success, and you may see eight-man grow. It’s going to take those few teams to take that step and try it out this year.”
Football Committee Chairman Brendan Scully acknowledged that no plan is perfect but added the proposal approved Thursday is in the best interest of Maine high school football. Additionally, 11-man programs would be allowed to move to eight-man football in 2020.
The committee previously proposed moving 11-man programs into three classes — instead of the four it adopted in 2013 — to add more competitive games.
“There are schools that don’t feel like they are ready to compete for championships. They just want competitive schedules,” Scully said.
Yet there was considerable pushback to adopting a three-class system.
“Going back to three classes is going backward,” Freeport High School Athletic Director Craig Sickels said. “In the Campbell Conference, we’ve made [cross-class games] work to some extent.”
Eleven-man teams that are unable to finish games or a season will be required to go eight-man. The committee passed that rule after Orono, which played in Class D North last season, was unable to complete some games because of a lack of healthy players.
Under the new rule, that game would have triggered Orono’s move to eight-man football. Orono chose to continue playing 11-man football in 2019. Head coach Bob Sinclair addressed the committee and said he expects Orono to remain competitive in Class D.
“We’ve looked at all options with an open mind. We really have,” Sinclair said. “The definition of what’s competitive could be all over the place. We’re working on it.”
The committee also voted to determine football playoff seeding using Crabtree points rather than the traditional Heal points, which were used for the last two seasons. While Heal points reward wins, the Crabtree system rewards playing stronger opponents.