Ellsworth/Sumner’s Jacob Shorey (middle) celebrates a touchdown with his teammates during a high school football game against Washington Academy on Sept. 23, 2016. Shorey was Sumner’s only player last year, but the school will bring some new faces to the team this year after it reached a deal to renew its cooperative partnership agreement with Ellsworth last week. FILE PHOTO

Ellsworth, Sumner agree to new cooperative football partnership

ELLSWORTH — Almost 10 months after Ellsworth High School made the decision to drop Sumner Memorial High School from a cooperative football partnership, the two are back together once again.

Hancock County’s two easternmost schools finalized a new agreement Tuesday that will send Sumner students to play for the Eagles through the 2018 season. That agreement comes after a change in Maine Principals’ Association rules made it possible for Ellsworth/Sumner to remain in Class D.

“We’re really excited to have Sumner join us again because it’s a deal that’s worked well in the past,” Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost said. “With these new changes, we’re able to renew that agreement and make it work for students at both schools.”

Ellsworth first entered a cooperative partnership with Sumner when it restarted its varsity football program in 2012. Under MPA rules, the program would have had to play in Class B if it wanted to participate in the playoffs from 2012-14 because the two schools’ combined enrollments at the time exceeded the maximum number allowed for the C and D classifications.

When the original partnership expired following the 2014 season, Ellsworth chose to renew it for another two years. Playing in Class B, Frost said, still posed far too many competitive and safety concerns, and securing a larger pool of players and forgoing a shot at the postseason for two more years was deemed a better option than the Class D playoff eligibility Ellsworth would have gotten by not renewing the partnership.

Yet circumstances soon changed as Ellsworth/Sumner, which had struggled in previous seasons, posted a combined seven wins in 2015 and 2016. Coaches and players felt the Eagles were on the verge of being a Class D playoff-caliber team, and when it appeared the MPA would make no changes to enrollment rules, Ellsworth chose not to extend another partnership offer.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but the timing made the most sense,” Frost said. “There weren’t any Sumner kids coming up, and we had reached a point where we felt making the playoffs in Class D was possible. That was going to do a lot for our program and our kids.”

At the MPA’s April conference in Rockport, though, the organization announced it would be implementing a percentage-based formula to determine class sizes for cooperative programs. Under that metric, the recipient of the partnership offer would have its enrollment added to that of the school offering the partnership based on its proportion of students.

Ellsworth and Sumner began crunching the numbers right away. Because Shorey was the only Sumner student of 30 on last year’s team, multiplying Sumner’s enrollment of 248 by 1/30 would determine what figure to add to Ellsworth’s 448. The new total, 456, was enough to keep Ellsworth/Sumner in Class D for two years.

“That was a game-changer,” Frost said. “The MPA basically wanted to have schools partner up without worrying too much about class size. When we found that out, we knew that option to join up with Sumner again was back on the table for us.”

Although Sumner didn’t have any players set to return at the time, Sumner Athletic Director Fredy Lazo had found there was still some interest in the sport after talking with students earlier in the spring. When the new guidelines were announced for cooperative teams, he knew there was hope those students would get a chance to play.

Lazo said one student from Sumner has officially joined the team thus far, but he expects the Eagles will have a few more faces from eastern Hancock County by the time the regular season begins.

“As an AD, you’re always looking to get kids to play sports, and one of the things I heard was, ‘Oh, I’d do it if we had football,’” Lazo said. “We already have a few kids I think we’ll see out there, and they’ll have a chance to make the playoffs this year, too.”

When the 2016-17 school year concluded in June, both schools began working on a new partnership. After the school districts spent a month completing the framework for it, the Regional School Unit 24 Board announced at its July 25 meeting that Ellsworth would soon be extending an offer.

“Ellsworth originally wanted to play alone because it was best for their kids, and that was totally understandable,” RSU 24 Superintendent Michael Eastman said at the meeting. “Ever since [the MPA decision in April], the people at Ellsworth made it very clear they wanted us to be part of their program again.”

The MPA will take another look at the reclassification system in spring 2019. If Sumner students at that time make up a larger portion of the team than they have in the past, Ellsworth could choose to terminate the partnership depending on whether keeping it would push the Eagles up another class size.

In the near future, at least, that’s not a concern for either school. Students from eight more towns still have the opportunity to play football, and both athletic directors expect that to have a positive outcome on fall sports at their respective schools.

“We’re glad they made this decision when they did so we could get it done in time for the season,” Frost said. “It’s been beneficial for both schools, and while we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, we’re really glad we’re able to keep it for now.”

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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