April 23, 2018
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Football in Maine is growing, despite shrinking enrollments and budget cuts

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

Naomi Miller heard the talk for years, about how the towns that send students to Medomak Valley High School of Waldoboro were going to start a youth football program.

But with her two sons now wanting to play the sport and few options available save for club and subvarsity programs in neighboring communities, Miller and her husband Fritz took it upon themselves to begin turning the talk into reality.

And Medomak Youth Football was born.

That program provided 80 young players and 40 cheerleaders from the midcoast communities of Friendship, Union, Washington, Waldoboro and Warren a chance to learn and compete in a sport for the first time this fall, and plans are in the works to add a team for high school-age players next year.

“I had a very selfish interest in doing this,” said Miller, now president of the Medomak Youth Football board of directors. “My children didn’t have a place to play, and one of my sons is already in his high school years and I wasn’t waiting another year.”

Miller’s activism in promoting the development of a football program in her community is not unusual in a state where the sport at the high school level has grown steadily during the last decade.

“A lot of times it’s the fathers who have grown up in a football-rich environment and had a positive experience, and they want their sons to have that same chance to play,” said Mike Bisson, athletic administrator at Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln and chairman of the Maine Principals’ Association football committee. “A lot of times it’s often just some real go-getters who get to a new community and find there’s no football, and they’re the ones who get involved in a start-up group.”

Such volunteer start-up groups have defied the hard economic times of recent years and been the catalysts in a boom of sorts in the number of youth and high school football programs statewide.

Three high schools — Hermon, Washington Academy of East Machias and Telstar of Bethel — fielded new varsity football teams last fall, joining the likes of Camden Hills of Rockport, Nokomis of Newport, Yarmouth, Freeport, Sacopee Valley of South Hiram, Mount View of Thorndike and Calais-Woodland among the more recent additions to a roster of MPA-sanctioned programs that this year numbered 76 — and counting.

“I remember when I first came here as athletic director 10 years ago, one of the questions I would get the most was when was Hermon getting football,” said Hermon athletic administrator Paul Soucy, whose school serves the communities of Carmel, Hermon and Levant.

“People who had moved here who had good experiences with football, a lot of times as a former player, said they wanted that same experience for their sons. Over the years I probably had 15 or 20 conversations similar to that before football was started here.’

“People moving to the area looked at Hermon because the home prices were reasonable and the taxes were low, but we probably lost some good students and athletes over the years to schools that had football.”

Ellsworth High School is close to becoming the next Eastern Maine school joining the varsity football ranks, with the Eagles expected to move up from developmental status in either 2012 or 2013.

And Miller would like for Medomak Youth Football to be the springboard for a Medomak Valley High School team in a few years.

“Our goal is eventually to be a high school varsity sport,” she said. “We understand that it’s going to take some time to get to that level so we have to be patient, but we have a plan in place.”

Broadening horizons

The growth of youth football in Maine is not confined to the high school varsity level.

Pockets of non-school affiliated football programs for teenagers are found in such areas as Buckfield, China, Milo and Lincoln County, while an eight-man football league is thriving in Aroostook County.

The MPA has taken notice of the growing interest in the sport, particularly in smaller communities, and is conducting a survey to determine the interest in creating a sanctioned eight-man football division in conjunction with its consideration of adding a fourth class to its current format for 11-player football statewide.

“Football is a sport that is very popular with young people,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham. “It’s popularity starts with the professional teams and extends all the way down through, and the nature of the sport is that it attracts a lot of kids who wouldn’t necessarily be playing another sport in the fall.

“The number of [high school] teams have grown steadily, and now we’re at a point where this survey may give even more schools the opportunity to consider offering football, schools that may not necessarily have the numbers for 11-man football or schools that might be losing enrollment.”

One area of agreement among Burnham and coaches and administrators from the newer football programs is that their teams don’t necessarily compete for athletes with existing fall sports, but often reach out to an entirely different segment of the student population.

“There were a large number of kids playing here who weren’t doing anything for a sport in the fall before,” said Ellsworth head coach Duane Crawford. “They might be kids who weren’t suited for soccer or didn’t want to play, or they weren’t cross country runners.

“Football also is a sport made for bigger kids, and for kids who might not be the best athletes in the world but can still go out and perform well on the football field.”

The perceived competition for athletes among fall sports teams at a school often is more a fear than a fact. When Nokomis started its varsity football program several years ago, golf took the biggest hit as a couple of lineman-sized players opted to switch to the new alternative.

Similarly, Ellsworth’s subvarsity team roster this fall was filled with newcomers to the competitive high school sports scene.

“Of the 30 kids we had on the high school team, only one had played in another fall sport, so it addressed a whole segment of kids who hadn’t played another sport before,” said Crawford. “It gives these kids an outlet to be competitive, and it helps them with all kinds of things including focusing in the classroom and self-confidence.”

One example of that growth beyond the game within the Eagles’ program was Matt Clark, a junior who transferred to Ellsworth this fall from Acadia Christian School of Trenton.

A first-year football player, Clark scored 11 touchdowns as a halfback this fall while also emerging as a top-notch punter and placekicker.

“Matt always loved football and always wanted to play,” said his father, Dave Clark. “I can’t really say it was just football that was the reason we switched schools. He wanted a better opportunity to play sports in general, but it was more than just sports.

“But he loves the game, he’s come so far already, and it gives him another reason to work harder and focus more on his grades.”

The money crunch

The major challenge facing any fledgling football program is financing the start-up costs — which on average runs tens of thousands of dollars but varies according to the needs of each team during a given year — as well as the price of maintaining the program from year to year.

And for most of the newer high school teams in Maine, that’s largely a private proposition, with little or no money included in the school budget.

Supporters of the Ellsworth football program have raised approximately $130,000 over the last three years through cash and in-kind donations such as field labor and equipment as well as from registration fees and fundraising activities, Crawford said. Depending on whether the team ascends to varsity status next fall, the total budget could be approximately $25,000, he said.

Hermon similarly has used no school-budgeted money for its high school football, and Soucy estimates a cost of between $32,000 and $35,000 for funding all aspects of that program next season. That money comes from fundraising efforts, gate receipts from football games and player registration fees.

And the start-up Medomak Youth Football program required approximately $20,000 to get its K-8 offerings off the ground last fall, an amount that included equipment donated to the group by the Brunswick youth football program as well as $7,500 raised from local businesses.

“We’ve had just huge support,” said Miller. “It’s been overwhelming support, both from local businesses and from throughout the communities.”

Costs to provide a football program at the youth or high school level can add up quickly.

Purchasing game uniforms, helmets and the various pads each player wears can cost as much as $20,000 to outfit a full team, depending on the number of players. Practice gear, game balls, medical kits, kicking tees, and repair kits for helmets and pads also figure into the base cost just for getting a team on the field.

Blocking dummies and sleds are other options that sometimes are purchased in subsequent years, and while coaches and athletic administrators hope to get several years out of each uniform, it’s not uncommon for several to be replaced each year.

Yearly expenses include the required annual reconditioning of helmets for safety purposes. That process involves making repairs to the helmet, facemask or padding, as well as cleaning and disinfecting. Other costs that go into an annual high school football budget include coaches’ salaries, transportation to and from games, game fees for officials, the chain crew, ticket takers, athletic trainers, ambulance service and security.

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into it,” said Soucy. “It’s probably the most time-consuming sport there is in that regard.”

And for those who raise the money or seek in-kind contributions to offset those costs — and often not just for the high school team, but also the local youth program typically developed to serve as the first stage of a feeder system for the varsity — there is no off-season.

“Fundraising is 12 months a year,” said Crawford. “People hate to see me coming.”

That effort involves everything from a direct solicitation of local businesses and the general public to raffles, bottle drives, benefit suppers, car washes and 50/50 contests like the one Medomak Youth Football coach Ryan Snell and other supporters of that program were conducting one evening earlier this month as the high school’s basketball team hosted rival Camden Hills of Rockport.

“The school has been very good to us to let us do this,” said Snell, a former Brewer High School player and assistant coach who is set to coach the Medomak Youth Football high school-age club team next fall.

Many of the newer programs and some of the longer-standing ones also have gone to a pay-to-play system in which each player must pay a registration fee that typically ranges between $100 and $200 per year in order to participate.

Some accommodations are made for those who can’t afford the fee. With the Medomak Youth Football program, for example, each player is given $100 worth of raffle tickets and may either sell or purchase them to account for their registration fee for the season.

Most of the time the task of raising enough money to sustain the program falls to parents of the current crop of players through a local football boosters group.

One concern is exactly what that parental investment in time and money actually purchases beyond what is necessary to put a product on the football field.

“When you have parents, community members, groups and business owners involved like they are, you hope they don’t come with any strings attached, and everyone here has been very supportive,” said Soucy. “I haven’t heard any complaints about the coaches, haven’t heard anyone questioning the play calling. I told [Hemon head coach] Ken Frederick that as we got to the varsity level the honeymoon probably would be over, but honest to God that hasn’t been the case here.

“I think the people are really appreciative of having football, and they’re happy with the kids having the chance to be out there playing and learning the game. We’re still in that honeymoon stage at this point, the kids are playing hard and everyone’s been positive about it.”

Crawford, an assistant coach at Mount Desert High School in Bar Harbor before becoming involved in Ellsworth’s effort to bring back high school football for the first time since the 1950s, similarly has found that the pressure put on coaches by parents concerning such issues as playing time for their children is no greater within his program than what is faced by coaches of programs that are funded within their school budgets.

“I haven’t had to deal with any of that, but we’re at a place where we play everyone anyway,” he said. “We do talk to the parents before each season, and we tell them that we’ll talk with the players about playing time, but not with the parents.”

While Crawford was a veteran coach before he began his involvement with the Ellsworth program, finding enough experienced coaches to help build newer programs — particularly in areas lacking their own football tradition — can be problematic.

“A lot of times when football comes to a new community there isn’t necessarily a lot of people already there with a background in the sport,” Bisson said. “And it can be a hard sport to coach because of all the strategy. It’s like a real live game of chess out there, so it’s really helpful if you can find good people to work with.”

Crawford said the Ellsworth coaching staff from the youth divisions through the high school level is a mix of people with hands-on experience in the sport and some who have learned along with their players.

“In some places it’s been a problem, but we’ve been fortunate to be able to find coaches,” he said. “One of our coaches is a teacher who played football at Husson [University], and our offensive coordinator coached in Massachusetts for 20 years before retiring to Brooksville. I’ve also gotten help from [former MDI coach George] ‘Toogie’ McKay, who helps out when he can.

“With youth football we had some coaches who had never coached before when we started, but now they have three years of coaching under their belts, while our eighth-grade coach played at Bucksport and our fifth- and sixth-grade coach played out of state.”

There’s reason to believe any coaching shortage that exists in the newer football hotbeds may be resolved through the increased number of former Maine high school players who have gone on to play collegiately within the state.

“With the generation of coaches I learned from, a lot of them had the opportunity to play college football at the University of Maine and brought that system with them to the high school ranks,” said Bisson. That’s why a lot of teams played the wing-T, because that was what the University of Maine ran when those coaches were playing there.

“Now we’ve got a lot of kids playing football at Husson and Maine Maritime, too, and hopefully having those other schools that have football will help create the next generation of coaches around the state.”

Return on investment

While costs for establishing and maintaining football programs are substantial, so are the resulting benefits, according to those involved in the process.

In addition to extending athletic opportunities to more and more students, the “Friday Night Lights” persona of a football game as a meeting place for people from all walks of life within the community can have significant social value.

“What’s special about football is that the games are just once a week and it becomes a big event in the community, especially in small, rural communities where there aren’t always a lot of other activities going on,” said Bisson.

Bisson, the Mattanawcook Academy athletic administrator and MPA football committee chairman, has lived through both sides of that issue.

His high school days were spent at Gray-New Gloucester, which did not have football when he attended, but Bisson went on to become a coach himself without having played the sport, first as an assistant at Stearns of Millinocket and more recently as both an assistant and head coach at MA.

“I grew up in the old Triple C Conference back when those schools like Gray-New Gloucester didn’t have football,” said Bisson, whose stepfather is longtime Maine high school coach Keith Lancaster. “Back then we were always jealous of the schools around that did have football.”

“Now all those schools have football. That’s been one of the great places for the growth of football in Maine and it’s been great for those communities.”

At Hermon, Soucy has witnessed the impact of football on that community first-hand.

“We’ve had so many people come up on campus because of football who had never come up over the hill before,” said Soucy, who added that the Hawks averaged ticket sales of more than 600 for each home football game during their inaugural season of varsity play. “The local community has really shown support, and for fans from visiting communities often it’s a chance to see our facilities for the first time.

“And you can’t underestimate the economic impact on the community. There are a lot of businesses along Route 2, and when people come into Hermon Center for the games they are spending money. On a Friday night when there’s a game going on, business spikes up.”

Other communities, such as Ellsworth and the Waldoboro area, hope to realize a similar ripple effect in the coming years, but how much more football’s footprint will expand remains to be seen in a state where overall high school enrollment is on a steady decline.

So far, at least, a love for the game, with its roots in the popularity of the National Football League, is defying that trend.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with it,” said Bisson. “I am optimistic that there might continue to be some growth, especially with teams in areas that don’t have football.

“We’re going to get to the saturation point at some point, but I’m not sure where that is.”

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