Move to fourth class for HS football unlikely for 2011

Posted Nov. 02, 2010, at 4:39 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 02, 2010, at 7:35 p.m.

A proposed shift from three to four classes in Maine’s high school football system may not have the kinks worked out in time to be instituted by next season after all.

Plans to add a class to the current format have been making their way through committees of the Maine Principals’ Association, which surveyed its football-playing members and found that 70 percent supported having four classes.

The proposal gained momentum during the summer, but once specific proposals became public, several issues arose — among them a proposed three-division format for a new Class AA that involves the state’s largest football-playing schools, as well as what to do about the competitive viability of several new or struggling football programs if they are classified to compete at a higher level by enrollment.

The MPA’s Classification Committee subsequently tabled football classification in late September at the request of the organization’s football committee. As an offshoot of that decision, representatives from football-playing schools around the state met recently at Lewiston High School to share additional feedback related to the issue, according to Mike Burnham, the MPA’s assistant executive director.

“It was a very good discussion,” said Burnham. “We had a very large representation not only of administrators but of coaches, too, wanting to share their concerns with the four-class proposal.”

The MPA Football Committee is scheduled to take up the issue again at its Dec. 2 meeting, and work on the proposal needs to be completed soon if it is to be instituted next year as it also must pass through the Classification Committee, which currently is conducting its biennial reclassification for all high school sports statewide for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.

Whether the Football Committee can complete work on all the issues pertaining to a shift to four classes to everyone’s satisfaction within that time frame is uncertain.

“If we do this, we want to do it right,” said Burnham.

One part of the original proposal would create East and West divisions for all classes except for the largest schools, which would have three divisions. One six-team Class AA division would include schools of more than 865 students from the Pine Tree Conference Class A ranks — Bangor, Brunswick, Edward Little of Auburn, Lewiston, Mount Ararat of Topsham and Oxford Hills of South Paris. The other two divisions would include a grouping of largely Cumberland County teams from the Southern Maine Activities Association (Cheverus of Portland, Deering of Portland, Portland, Scarborough, South Portland and Windham) and a grouping of mostly York County teams (Biddeford, Bonny Eagle of Standish, Massabesic of Waterboro, Noble of North Berwick, Sanford and Thornton Academy of Saco).

How teams would qualify for postseason play from a three-division Class AA had yet to be made final.

“There’s still support for four classes,” said Burnham, “but there was not support for the the largest schools having three divisions, and that came from both ends of the state.”

Even more discussion centered on the fate of several new or struggling programs, particularly those slated by enrollment to move up in class under the four-class format.

For example, Eastern Maine Class A under a four-class arrangement not only would include former big-school programs from Lawrence of Fairfield, Messalonskee of Oakland, Mt. Blue of Farmington, Skowhegan, Cony of Augusta and Brewer, but also a Nokomis of Newport program that went winless in Class B this season, a Camden Hills of Rockport team that just completed its second year of varsity play at the Class B level, and Oceanside High School of Rockland-Thomaston, which represents the merger of Rockland and Georges Valley of Thomaston high schools set to begin next fall. Rockland went .500 in Class C this fall while Georges Valley does not field a football team, yet their combined enrollment — 692 as of April 1 — would move the new school up two classes without an additional influx of football support.

“There are some programs out there with larger enrollments that are concerned about being competitive,” Burnham said.

One idea that has been floated would go beyond having enrollment as the sole means of classifying schools in high school football to somehow include the strength of the individual programs.

Currently, a school can elect to play down a class for competitive reasons but not be eligible for postseason play, as has been the case for the last three years with Old Town. Old Town, a Class B school by enrollment, has played in the Class C LTC for the last three seasons and this year would have qualified for the playoffs with its 5-3 record — though that would have ousted Orono, a Class C team by enrollment, from postseason play.

Yet there is some support for allowing struggling or new teams to play down a class and still be eligible for the playoffs, and that is expected to be another subject of discussion for the football committee at its Dec. 2 meeting.

And while the addition of a fourth class is in part a response to the steady growth in the number of varsity football programs statewide, whether that trend will continue or even become subject to contraction in the coming years is not clear.

While 74 varsity teams competed during the 2010 season, the number of new programs joining the ranks in the next few years likely is small. Hermon is one school working toward varsity status in Eastern Maine, and Ellsworth is another possibility. But there also are ongoing efforts at school consolidation that may reduce the number of current programs — such as in Jay and Livermore Falls, where voters will consider consolidation in January — while programs at several other schools may be jeopardized by a continuing erosion of their enrollments.

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