By Travis Lazarczyk
Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel
AUGUSTA — It’s first down and goal to go for proponents of eight-man football in Maine.
The Maine Principals’ Association football committee voted Thursday to replace the Class E developmental league with an eight-man division next year. Classes A, B, C and D would continue to play the traditional game if the MPA approves eight-man football in a vote by its membership, probably in April.
The eight-man format is seen as an alternative for programs that have been struggling to attract enough players for 11-man football amid declining participation in the sport at the high school level nationwide. While a team with 20 players is unable to hold full 11-on-11 practices, an eight-man squad could have full offensive and defensive lineups with four reserves.
Growing safety concerns about concussions and other injuries have led to the decline in high schoolers who want to play football. In Maine, participation in the sport decreased 16.9 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to annual surveys by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Participation numbers for 2018 are not available.
Meanwhile, participation in eight-man football has been growing, with 19 states offering the sport in 2017 — up from 17 in 2016 — and a total of 847 teams and 19,662 players. The closest state with an eight-man league is New York, which introduced the format in 2017 and had six teams. Nebraska has the largest eight-man participation with 120 teams and close to 3,000 players.
Jim Leonard, the athletic director at Maine Central Institute, was among those who spoke in favor of adopting eight-man football during Thursday’s meeting.
“The critical issue is numbers are down statewide. What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to save football or trying to save 11-man football?” Leonard asked. “We need to be proactive, and I think eight-man, on some level, will do that.”
Schools with an enrollment of 350 or fewer students would be eligible for eight-man football under the football committee’s proposal, but schools with more than 350 students will be able to petition to join the new league, which could lead to two divisions of eight-player football.
Greely High School in Cumberland is one of the larger schools that might be interested in eight-man football after playing the 2018 season with a 22-man roster in Class B. Greely expects even fewer players next year, so the Rangers likely would need to form a co-operative team with a nearby school if they want to continue 11-man football.
The MPA will survey member schools to gauge interest in the eight-man league, and the football committee will meet Jan. 8 to finalize a proposal to bring to the classification committee that month or in February. The proposal would go to a vote of the full MPA membership in April.
MPA Assistant Executive Director Mike Burnham said the survey also will address field size and roster size recommendations.
Some teams to stick with 11-man football
Eight-man football is played without two interior linemen and one back found in traditional football. Fields are typically 120 feet wide instead of 160 feet, and the length can remain 100 yards or be reduced to 80. It is common to reduce the width and maintain the 100-yard distance.
Old Orchard Beach, one of the nine schools that played in Class E this year, already has begun preparing for the shift to eight-man football, said Dean Plante, the school’s football coach and athletic director.
“We have been on the front of it for about eight months now, and we’re excited for the creativity and effort on the MPA’s part to get it rolling,” Plante said. “I think you’ll find a fair number of teams interested.”
Plante estimates that seven to 12 schools with enrollments below 350 will shift to eight-man, including many of this year’s Class E teams. But some Class E schools plan to stick with 11-man football, including Freeport, this year’s Class E champion. With an enrollment of 494 students, Freeport would move to Class C if it sticks with traditional football.
“We plan to go back to where we belong if everyone else stays where they belong,” said Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels. “If whatever class we’re in, a significant number of schools decide to go [to] eight-man, then we need to look at what’s best for our program.”
Plante predicted there will be a “domino effect” once the MPA survey is circulated, particularly among schools with enrollments greater than 350.
“The athletic directors are going to be in communication with each other. If a couple of schools go [to eight-man], then we’ll see others,” Plante said.
Another Class E program, Camden Hills, isn’t sure what it will do if Class E is replaced by an eight-man league. Head coach Jeremy Marks said interest in the program is growing, but the Windjammers aren’t yet ready to play in Class B, where they’d be placed based on enrollment.
Walter Polky, whose Maranacook team played in Class E this year, said more discussion is needed before the Black Bears decide whether to play in Class D next season or give eight-man football a try. Maranacook’s roster grew from 16 players in 2017 to 28 players in 2018.
“I haven’t really thought of our team as an eight-man team,” Polky said. “I don’t know how Class D is going to align next year.”
He said Maranacook would prefer to play 11-man football.
“I wish they’d develop Class E more because our conference is very competitive,” Polky said. “I’m not against eight-man football. The more kids you can get out playing eight-man football, the better.”
Full support needed for 8-man format
MCI head coach Tom Bertrand told the committee that if the MPA sponsors eight-man football, the new league must have the MPA’s full support. The MPA did not recognize an official state champion in Class E, though that league had its own playoff format and declared a champion.
“The unknown might make people say, ‘No way,’ when really the right choice is for them to try that out,” Bertrand said. “Legitimize it and [have a state champion]. That would be an encouraging thing for schools that need to make that choice.”
Sickels and Plante said any school that shifts to an eight-man format might need to convince community members that it’s still football, requiring the same stamina and athleticism as the 11-man game.
“Eight-man is played all over the country,” Sickels said, “and you have kids in Texas playing eight-man going to Division I schools.”
Steve Craig of the Portland Press Herald contributed to this report.