By Travis Lazarczyk
Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel
AUGUSTA — The Maine Principals’ Association Football Committee discussed prospects for eight-man football on Tuesday but decided to withhold final recommendations on a possible league in 2019 until completion of the current football season.
Eight-man football is not played at Maine high schools, but the idea has gained traction as many schools struggle to maintain rosters large enough to play the traditional 11-man version of the sport. Seventeen states offered eight-man football in 2016, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on a proposal by Football Committee Chairman Brendan Scully, athletic director at Massabesic High School. Scully’s plan would eliminate the current Class E developmental league and replace it with an eight-man league for schools with fewer than 350 students. However, those schools could petition to continue playing 11-man football.
Yarmouth High School Athletic Director Susan Robbins said she’s heard from a handful of larger schools — including Class B Mount Ararat and Greely, Class C Gray-New Gloucester and Class E Camden Hills — that would be interested in more information on an eight-man football league. Each of those schools is playing this season with fewer than 30 players.
Smaller schools have balked at playing larger schools — even in a proposed eight-man league — according to MPA Assistant Director Mike Burnham. That led Robbins to ask if two eight-man leagues would be feasible.
“What’s the real interest in playing eight-man football above 350 (enrollment)? Four schools, is that a division?” Scully said.
Allan Snell, the committee’s liaison for game officials, said other states with eight-man leagues use an enrollment cutoff that prevents larger schools from participating. An eight-man league should not be seen as a chance for larger schools to drop and redevelop their program, Snell said. Rather, it should be a league for schools no longer able to field rosters large enough for 11-man football, he said.
“If you open it up, you’ll have some issues. You don’t want larger schools dropping,” Snell said.
Many questions remain about how eight-man football would be implemented in Maine, said Dan O’Connell, the head football coach at John Bapst and the liaison from the MPA Coaches Committee.
“If eight-man becomes viable, we need to know the who, what, when and why,” O’Connell said. “I’m getting questions from Madawaska and Presque Isle all the way to New Hampshire. … It’s such an unknown entity for so many who would fall into this boat.”
Dan Clifford, principal at Ellsworth High School, asked if the committee should consider a minimum roster requirement to participate in 11-man football. O’Connell said the number of players is less important than the number of experienced players who are ready to compete at the varsity level.
“If we just went with a number, I think we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” O’Connell said.
If the Football Committee were to recommend an eight-man league for 2019, the proposal would need to be approved by the MPA’s general membership next spring. Burnham noted that an eight-man league would make it tougher for schools with 11-man football to schedule crossover games, which have been successful in Class B, C and D over the past two seasons.
Some states with eight-man football play with different rules on an 80-yard field rather than the traditional 100-yard field. Snell said national federation rules have a stipulation for playing eight-man on a 100-yard field.
While there are many questions about eight-man football, O’Connell said, the game is, at its heart, the same as 11-man football.
“You still have to block, and you still have to tackle,” he said.
If nothing else, Tuesday’s meeting was a start to a larger, upcoming discussion.
“This is what people need to wrap their heads around eight-man football,” Robbins said. “They need a starting point.”
The committee will ask for feedback from schools to gauge interest in eight-man football. It scheduled a meeting for Nov. 29 to discuss the issue again.