High school football will return to the Ellsworth area for the first time in more than five decades next fall after receiving the blessings of the Regional School Unit 24 board of directors Tuesday night.
With just one dissenting vote, the board approved the establishment of a privately funded football program at the high school level for students from the RSU’s two sending high schools, Ellsworth and Sumner of East Sullivan.
“It’s good news, and it was a bit surprising,” said Harold “Tug” White of Ellsworth, president of the Ellsworth Football League that operates the local youth football program. “I thought the vote might be a little closer.”
The vote came one week after members of the public spoke before the RSU board about the proposal, which was the latest step in efforts to bring football back to Ellsworth for the first time since the late 1950s while also making it available to Sumner students for the first time.
“It’s been a long haul,” said Duane Crawford, an Ellsworth Football League organizer and head coach of the program’s first-year high school club team this fall.
The Ellsworth-Sumner high school team must play a developmental schedule against subvarsity or similar developmental opponents for the next two years before it is eligible to apply for varsity status with the Maine Principals’ Association.
The developmental schedule next fall likely will be similar to the club schedule played by the EFL high school-age team this year, which included contests against Washington Academy of East Machias and Hermon and junior varsity teams from Mount Desert Island, Belfast, Brewer, Hampden Academy and Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln. Hermon, a developmental program this year, is set to join the varsity ranks in 2011.
Approximately 100 youths from an area ranging from Steuben to Otis participated in the EFL this fall at four levels — third- and fourth-graders, fifth-and sixth-graders, seventh- and eighth-graders and high school. About 30 high school-age players completed the 2010 season, Crawford said.
Crawford hopes the validation of football in the area provided by the RSU board’s vote will encourage increased participation from potential Sumner football players.
“We had only one player from Sumner this year, I’d like to see 10 to 12,” said Crawford. “That definitely would be a bonus.”
Crawford said the high school athletic department will assume oversight of the developmental team, but that the EFL will remain responsible for funding the high school program.
Other issues to be determined include where the high school football team will hold games and practices. There was a new field recently built on the Ellsworth High School campus, but that site has not yet been used and whether it would be used for football remains to be determined. Long-range hopes shared by Crawford, White and other supporters of Ellsworth-Sumner football include a possible fund-raising drive for an artificial-turf field that could be used for multiple sports.
The EFL practiced and played home games this season at the Lamoine Consolidated School.
In the meantime, the fact there will be a high school football program available for Ellsworth and Sumner players in the future represents a big step forward for White, who fondly recalls his days as an EHS student-athlete when Ellsworth was a founding member of the Little Ten Conference in 1951.
White played baseball for the Eagles and was a member of Charlie Katsiaficas’ storied Ellsworth boys basketball teams that won back-to-back Class LL state championships in 1953 and 1954 and twice competed in the New England championships. But it was his experience as an all-conference tackle and captain of the school’s football team — which was dropped due to lack of participation later in the decade — that fuels his excitement for the return of the sport to the community.
“Myself having played and coached and televised in the Little Ten Conference, I really enjoyed the game,” said White, also a former football broadcaster. “Football has always been special to me.”