Hermon football shines, but playoffs will have to wait

Posted Oct. 17, 2012, at 8:46 p.m.

HERMON, Maine — The Hermon High School football team has enjoyed one of the more successful sophomore seasons of varsity competition in recent memory, sporting a 5-2 record entering Friday’s regular-season finale against Bucksport and featuring the LTC’s leading rusher in sophomore standout David Shepardson.

Yet for the Hawks, as they have known since before joining the varsity ranks in 2011, postseason play will have to wait at least one more year.

Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director Mike Burnham confirmed Wednesday that as a Class B program by enrollment playing its first two seasons in the LTC Class C ranks to acclimate itself to varsity competition, the team is ineligible for postseason play in the lower division.

“Schools that play down are not eligible for the playoffs until the point at which they are playing in the class their enrollment would place them in,” said Burnham.

When Hermon entered the varsity football world two years ago after two seasons of subvarsity play, the school had 531 students — seven more than the 524-student enrollment cutoff to compete in Class C.

School officials at the time opted for the Hawks to spend their first two varsity seasons in the LTC Class C. They picked the LTC, which includes the smallest football-playing schools in Eastern Maine, rather than starting out in Class B with the understanding that, while in Class C, the program would be ineligible for postseason play.

It’s an approach taken by nearly all new varsity football programs of recent vintage statewide.

Hermon finished 1-7 in 2011, but when the Hawks began winning on a much more consistent basis this fall, word began to spread in LTC circles that the team might be eligible for postseason play, even though nothing about MPA policy on the matter had changed.

“We’ve known all along that we were not eligible for the playoffs last season and this season,” said Hermon coach Ken Frederick, whose Hawks currently are ranked sixth in the LTC Crabtree point ratings. Eight of the league’s 12 schools ultimately qualify for postseason play.

“We also never really thought we’d have a season like we’ve had this year, and then once we started winning we started hearing rumors that we might be eligible.”

The rumors came to the forefront late last week at a meeting of Penobscot Valley Conference athletic administrators that also was attended by Burnham.

Hermon athletic administrator Paul Soucy asked Burnham about the Hawks’ eligibility, and Burnham agreed to research the issue to determine if a precedent existed that allowed a first- or second-year varsity team to qualify for postseason play in a division lower than the one to which it would be assigned by enrollment.

Soucy subsequently formalized a request for Burnham to study the matter via email.

“It kind of took on a life of its own,” said Soucy, who was involved in the original decision for Hermon to play in Class C for its first two varsity seasons. “We knew we were ineligible for our first two years in Class C, but once the talk started people started to wonder and once the request was put in to research it to see where we stood, it made sense to put on hold addressing the team about it until we got the MPA ruling.”

Burnham reviewed available information related to the issue and consulted several veteran school officials and football coaches statewide in an effort to determine if any team in Hermon’s situation had been allowed to compete in postseason play in the past.

The closest relevant example discovered involved Bonny Eagle High School of Standish, a Class A school that joined the varsity ranks in the early 1990s, initially as a Western Maine Class C entry. The Scots did not qualify for postseason play in their first two years, Burnham reported, and then moved up to Class B for its third season in 1993. They finished 7-1 but remained ineligible for the playoffs because of their Class A enrollment.

“We weren’t able to find a situation where it had happened before and the team was allowed to play in the postseason,” said Burnham. “But if there is a precedent out there, we will deal with it.”

That rule includes not only newcomers to the varsity ranks but also established teams that opt to play down in an effort to stabilize their struggling programs. That scenario was played out most recently in Old Town, where the Class B Coyotes dropped to Class C for three years and were ineligible for postseason play during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons. Old Town moved back up to Class B in 2011.

High school football teams in Maine that qualify for postseason play in their designated class during their initial two seasons of varsity competition are infrequent but not unprecedented.

Calais-Woodland joined the LTC in 2008 as a first-year varsity program and a Class C school by enrollment and experienced immediate success. The Silverados qualified for the Class C playoffs in their first season and won their first LTC playoff game before bowing out in the regional semifinals.

Calais-Woodland also qualified for the Class C playoffs in 2009 and 2010 before suspending its program last spring due to a lack of players.

This year, Washington Academy of East Machias, with a Class C-qualifying enrollment of 416 as of April 1, 2010, is on course to secure an LTC playoff berth.

Ironically, Hermon’s April 1, 2012, enrollment of 517, which will be used in determining in what class the Hawks will compete in 2013 and 2014, would have made the program Class C-eligible for the current two-year classification cycle.

Hermon is expected to move to its designated class based on enrollment for the next two-year cycle and thus will be eligible for the playoffs in future years, though with the MPA currently considering a proposal to add a fourth class statewide in 2013, exactly in what class the Hawks ultimately will land has yet to be determined.

Burnham, Soucy and Frederick agree that any confusion surrounding Hermon’s eligibility status for postseason play this year should not detract from the progress experienced by the team.

“The team has played very well this year and the community has really supported football,” said Soucy. “But we knew before the season that we weren’t going to be eligible for the playoffs and we’re understanding of that.”

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