Four-class format for high school football requires patience

Posted Sept. 30, 2010, at 6:38 p.m.

High school football teams around the state are feeling the sense of urgency that comes when the schedule begins to wind down and the uncertainty of their playoff hopes is staring them in the facemasks.

But there’s also considerable attention being paid to the sport’s future, particularly relating to the increase from three to four classes being proposed for the 2011 season.

The idea has been making its way through committees of the Maine Principals’ Association, which surveyed its football-playing members and found that more than 70 percent supported having four classes.

It’s likely to happen but some issues still remain, so the MPA’s Classification Committee this week tabled football classification at the request of the Football Committee, which plans to meet next month with football conference representatives from around the state to address their concerns.

For what it’s worth, I previously opined that it’s time to return to four football classes for the first time since 1986, given that the number of varsity programs statewide is expected to approach 80 in the not-too-distant future and 20 football schools to a class seems like a reasonable number.

But it’s not as simple as neat brackets.

For example, the current plan creates two divisions in Classes A, B and C, but offers three divisions in Class AA for the state’s 18 largest football-playing schools — one for York County teams, another for Greater Portland and the third that would stretch from Brunswick north to Bangor. How that playoff scenario would play out is uncertain, but one easily could make the case that the 18 Class AA teams would be better off split into two nine-team divisions with an eight-game regular season followed by eight-team playoffs in both the East and West — as would be the case in the other classes.

The three-division format is likely a concession to southern teams feeling they might not be proportionally represented in the Class AA playoffs with just two divisions, but presumably three of the Greater Portland teams would be moved to the North in any two-division format so they would still have the chance to earn their way into the playoffs by beating the northern teams.

And since three six-team divisions ensure only five intradivisional games for each team, three crossover games would be required in that format anyway.

A three-division format for football also would set a precedent to do the same thing in other sports. Why not Class D baseball, where there are 17 Eastern Maine teams and seven in the West. Why should a Western D team have a one-in-seven chance to win a regional title, while a Eastern Maine team’s chance is just one-in-17?

Another concern involves competitive balance. Take Eastern Maine Class A in a four-class alignment, which would include one of the state’s premier programs in Lawrence of Fairfield, with Cony of Augusta, Skowhegan, Brewer and Messalonskee of Oakland also dropping a class due to the anticipated enrollment cutoffs. Would a unified Rockland/Georges Valley team — a merger of Rockland’s Class C program with Georges Valley, which doesn’t field a football program — be able to compete against those more established programs? What about Nokomis of Newport or Camden Hills of Rockport, two of the newer football schools still struggling for stability?

There’s still plenty to address before four divisions become a reality, so let the discussions continue.

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