HOULTON, Maine — Houlton High School is moving closer to adding 11-player football to its interscholastic sports offerings.
The RSU 29 board of directors gave a proposal to establish a subvarsity football team at the school preliminary approval during its most recent meeting earlier this month. Now backers of that proposal are working to ensure there is sufficient player interest to warrant the move.
“The school board has pledged its support for the program,” said Houlton principal Marty Bouchard. “But a few details remain.”
Chief among those details are making sure there are enough interested players at the school to offer a subvarsity team, which would be a prerequisite for eventually fielding a varsity football team.
Under Maine Principals’ Association rules, in most cases a school wanting to join its varsity ranks must complete two seasons of developmental football before being able to apply for varsity status.
The Houlton area already has a feeder system in place through a local team that has competed for several years in the Aroostook Football League. The AFL is a non-school-affiliated eight-player football league that includes teams from the St. John Valley, central Aroostook County and greater Houlton.
The Houlton-based AFL team known as the Knights, which also has included players from other schools in the region such as Hodgdon and Katahdin of Stacyville, had approximately 35 high school-aged players last fall, according to Brian Reynolds, the team’s head coach.
The Knights have won the AFL championship each of the last three years.
In addition, the Knights’ middle school-age (grades 7-8) and peewee (grades 5-6) teams have averaged between 20 and 25 additional players each, Reynolds said.
Bouchard said the high school team would need 30 to 35 players each year to be viable, and noted that 30 of the Knights’ high school-aged players in 2011 were from Houlton High School.
A survey conducted at the school before the issue was presented to the RSU 29 board indicated sufficient interest to advance the proposal, and while an introductory meeting held Sunday evening in the aftermath of the preliminary vote drew approximately 25 potential players, Reynolds said he knew of several other students interested in playing who did not attend the meeting.
Another issue to be addressed before the school board takes final action on the proposal — expected to come at its April 2 meeting — involves formalizing a plan to play games and practice on a new field soon to be built on land owned by the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $600,000 in grant funding to the Maliseets last year through its Indian Community Development Block Grant Program for construction of football and baseball fields and an athletic track.
According to the plan, the tribe will contribute $150,000 as a match for the grant, mostly through land value and in-kind services.
Reynolds, who works as tribal administrator for the Houlton Band of Maliseets, said ground breaking on the football field is set for this spring, with goal posts and bleachers to be included in the project.
The new facility, which will be used primarily by tribal members, would replace a smaller field that has been used as a practice facility by the Knights.
If the new facility is not football-ready for the start of the 2012 season, Reynolds said it’s possible a first-year Houlton subvarsity team might initially have to play its games on the road until the field is completed.
While much of the equipment currently used by the Knights could be used by the high school program, Reynolds added that the Maliseets have pledged $30,000 toward the fledgling subvarsity football effort.
“It’s to help fund the program for two years at the junior varsity steppingstone level to see if we can then go into Class C,” he said.
Other funding for the high school developmental team would be generated by the Houlton Football Association boosters group through a plan modeled after the Hockey 2000 effort that was instrumental in bringing the Houlton-Hodgdon varsity hockey program into existence.
It’s unlikely under current circumstances, however, that Houlton would enter into a cooperative arrangement for any varsity football program that might evolve from the subvarsity team.
Houlton has approximately 365 students, and adding a neighboring high school likely would put their combined enrollment above the current Class C football maximum of 524. That means the Shiretowners would have to compete as an Eastern Maine Class B program in its varsity infancy.