ELLSWORTH — Duane Crawford has spent many late-summer and early-fall hours over the past eight years preparing for high school football games. This year, the Ellsworth/Sumner head coach’s preparations look a bit different.
After re-entering the varsity fold in 2012, the Eagles have gone from their first win to their first winning season to their first playoff appearance in a span of less than a decade. As Ellsworth/Sumner gets set to conclude its summer practice slate, the team is still dreaming big — but preparing to play a little bit smaller.
Ellsworth/Sumner is set to kick off a new chapter in the state’s high school football history this coming season as a member of the Maine Principals’ Association’s new eight-man football classification. The switch to the new format offers Crawford’s program and others throughout the state chances to keep their teams thriving in Maine’s ever-changing varsity football scene.
“This is going to be a really exciting season for us,” Crawford said. “It’s a great opportunity for our team to be part of this first season of eight-man football, and we’re hoping it’ll drum up some more interest for us.”
Although discussions to bring eight-man football to Maine began well before the 2018-19 high school sports season, the plan became a near certainty in November when the MPA Football Committee voted to replace the developmental Class E with an eight-man classification. After more meetings in the winter, the new format was made official April 25.
Proposals throughout the process varied in regards to which schools would play eight-man football, the enrollment cutoffs used and whether the MPA would be able to keep four 11-man classes. In the end, the four-class system for 11-man football stayed in tact as Ellsworth/Sumner was placed alongside Gray-New Gloucester, Mount Ararat, Maranacook and Yarmouth in the larger of two eight-man divisions.
“We didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like, but there was a lot of support from schools of all sizes for an eight-man league,” Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost said. “The general feeling was that this was the right direction.”
Eight-man football makes its arrival as schools across the state have seen declining enrollments and, thus, declining roster sizes across a variety of sports. Football has been hit particularly hard with the state’s participation at the high school level dropping 16.9 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Ellsworth/Sumner has been among the programs facing that numbers crunch over the past few seasons. The team has been deep enough to stay competitive during that span, but with 10 of its 20 players from the 2018 team graduating this summer and a much smaller group of incoming freshmen set to arrive, the Eagles were looking at a different roster situation in 2019.
The MPA also changed Class D’s enrollment cutoff from 469 for the 2017 and 2018 seasons to 419 for 2019 and 2020. With the combined enrollment calculation for Ellsworth and Sumner rising from 455 to 483, the Eagles would have had to battle Class C powers such as Hermon, Maine Central Institute, Mount Desert Island, Nokomis and Winslow — a safety concern, Frost said — had they stuck with 11-man football.
“We looked at what we had for fall 2019, and we said, ‘We have to go eight-man for this season,’” Frost said. “We were kind of looking at eight-man from the get-go, but once the enrollment figures came out and had us in Class C, that was kind of the final thing that spurred us to see what eight-man football is all about.”
Personnel-wise, eight-man offenses operate with two fewer linemen and one fewer back than 11-man teams. On the defensive side, the reduction in players enables teams to use five- or six-man fronts as opposed to the seven- or eight-man schemes used in traditional football.
The field will still be 100 yards in length, though the width will be reduced from 53 1/3 yards to 40 yards to accommodate the change in numbers. Eight-man games do tend to be more up-tempo and result in higher scores than 11-man games, but players will still be running, passing, blocking and blitzing just as they’ve done their entire careers.
“It gives us a new way to look at things as coaches,” Crawford said. “It’s a bit different and more of a wide-open game, but at the end of the day, you’re still playing football.”
Senior Connor Crawford said he expects Ellsworth/Sumner to field 15-20 players this fall. That number would be untenable at the Class C level, but in eight-man play, it should suit the Eagles just fine.
“At the end of last year, we had 18 kids,” Crawford said. “It’s hard to work with that number in 11-man, but if you’re playing eight-man, you have a lot more options.”
As eight-man football is only a one-year commitment, Ellsworth/Sumner and the other eight-man teams may return to 11-man play in 2020 if they so choose. That arrangement is also in place for the state’s 11-man teams, which are eligible to drop down to the eight-man level next year pending MPA approval.
At the youth level, though, the sport will continue to be played via the 11-man code. The only fundamental change within Ellsworth Football League’s youth program will come at the third/fourth-grade level, where tackle football is being replaced with flag football. Ellsworth Football League will hold registration at 5 p.m. next Wednesday, Aug. 7, at Ellsworth High School.
“I think [switching to flag football] is going to be a good change,” Duane Crawford said. “You’re always looking for things that can boost your numbers anywhere, and this has a really good chance to be one of those things that can really become a positive for our football program going forward.”
As for the varsity team, Ellsworth/Sumner will be eligible for the playoffs once again this year as the Eagles and the state’s nine other eight-man teams vie for a Gold Ball. The large-school and small-school (Boothbay, Old Orchard Beach, Sacopee Valley, Telstar and Traip Academy) divisions will each send four teams to their respective playoffs with the winners meeting in the new classification’s first state championship game.
Players must take two weeks away for the mandatory “hands-off” period from Aug. 5-18 before the start of fall practices Aug. 19. Then, on Sept. 6, Ellsworth High School’s Tug White Stadium will make history as the site of the state’s first regular season eight-man football game when Ellsworth/Sumner hosts Yarmouth at 6 p.m.
“We get to be the first team to kick off an eight-man game, and we’re hoping that we get a good crowd with a lot of people showing up,” Connor Crawford said. “It doesn’t matter what the numbers on the field are; we’re just going to go out and play football.”