Many challenges facing Maine these days are portrayed geographically in a north vs. south light.
But when the issue is how high schools develop competitive varsity sports schedules, the challenge is most daunting for those on the state’s eastern and western fringes, because Down East and northwestern Maine have fewer schools with fewer students and generally are more remote than those nearer the I-95 and U.S. Route 1 corridors.
It’s only thanks to the cooperation among schools on both edges of that perimeter that the scheduling dilemma isn’t even worse.
Take Greenville High School. Located in the western Maine mountains barely a few hundred yards from the shore of Moosehead Lake, that school has filled out its boys basketball schedule this winter with three trips to the Maine coast — Islesboro, Shead of Eastport and Machias — while also hosting Jonesport-Beals.
And that doesn’t count the Lakers’ East-West Conference opponents, which include such spread-out locales as Vinalhaven, Richmond and Buckfield.
Want to subsidize that transportation budget?
Forest Hills of Jackman and Valley of Bingham, also East-West Conference members competing in Western Maine Class D, similarly spend much more time on a schoolbus than the average high school team. Forest Hills, for instance, has nonconference road games at North Haven and Pine Tree Academy of Freeport, as well as two games against Seacoast Christian of South Berwick, one at the Augusta Civic Center and the second at the former Averill School in Hinckley.
Most schools facing such travel travails are among the state’s smallest, competing in Eastern or Western Class D.
Few larger schools face a similar extreme when it comes to trying to balance transportation costs with the pursuit of Heal points, but one that certainly does is Calais High School.
An Eastern C powerhouse in many sports in recent years, Calais simply has run out of nearby Class C opponents to face. Neighboring Woodland, which has competed in both Classes C and D during recent times based on its enrollment, is now back in Class D. Washington Academy of East Machias, a longtime Class C rival, is now in Class B.
Calais and WA still play in virtually all sports, but the fact the Blue Devils otherwise are surrounded by Class D schools in fellow Downeast Athletic Conference members Woodland, Shead, Machias and Jonesport-Beals has left the Blue Devils to resort to long-distance means to fill out its varsity schedules.
This winter, the Calais girls basketball team has just 15 regular-season games instead of the traditional 18, including three each against Woodland and Narraguagus of Harrington, the only other Class C school left in the DAC. Calais also has home-and-home nonconference games with Class C Madawaska — yes, that Madawaska from the St. John Valley — as well as two games each against Class D Shead, Machias and Jonesport-Beals.
The boys team has a 16th game against A.R. Gould, a Western D team from South Portland. This year’s matchup is at Calais on Jan. 31; a year ago the Blue Devils traveled nearly 250 miles one way to southern Maine for the game.
What can be done to help the schools located farthest off the beaten I-95 path with this onerous scheduling dilemma?
The geographic reality is that the schools are where they are, and their teams are going to have to travel.
But there may be additional help available.
Calais applied last fall for membership in the Penobscot Valley Conference — a 31-school behemoth that stretches from Fort Kent to Searsport — but was voted down, likely because of members’ concerns about their own transportation budgets.
It seems like a selfish vote to me given how spread out the PVC already is, but at least conference officials indicated they would try to help Calais by scheduling games with member schools within geographic striking distance of the border city.
Another possibility is for the Maine Principals’ Association to tinker with the Heal point formula in the interest of regionalization, narrowing the point differential among the four classes so schools could schedule games against nearby teams from different classes without fearing as much for their postseason status.
Pretty much anything is worth exploring, because ultimately every high school from Kittery to Fort Kent is supposed to be in this together.
In the interim, remember as you complain about a long drive to watch your favorite team play its next game, it could be a lot worse.