BUCKSPORT, Maine — The clock hadn’t struck 5 o’clock Saturday afternoon but the wrestling mats already were being rolled up at Jewett Gymnasium.
It had been a long day as competitors representing 18 different Class B and Class C wrestling programs battled at the annual Penobscot Valley Conference championship meet.
Yet darkness hadn’t fully set in outside and wrestlers and fans were making their way home perhaps an hour or more earlier than in recent years.
Fewer participants resulted in fewer matches.
Just 102 wrestlers competed in the 14 weight classes for this year’s event, compared to 118 for the PVCs a year ago and 128 at the 2011 conference championships.
And of the 18 schools that sent wrestlers to the meet, 10 had six or fewer competitors.
Those include Penobscot Valley of Howland, a Class C wrestling powerhouse during the 1990s that finished second at the state meet as recently as 2010. Now, with its enrollment reduced to 171 students as of April 1, 2012, PVHS had just three wrestlers take to the mat Saturday while four other schools fielded just a single wrestler each.
Illness and injury played roles in reducing this year’s field. Other wrestlers opted to save themselves for next weekend’s regional meets that serve as qualifiers for the states that will be held Feb. 9 at the Augusta Civic Center.
But the steady decline in the state’s student-age population, particularly in the more rural areas that are home to many smaller schools that field Class C athletic programs, also has taken its toll on wrestling participation numbers, as have the physical demands of the sport.
The evolving wrestling demographics have spurred speculation of a return to just two classes for the sport for the first time since Class C was added most recently in 1990 — there also was a Class C for two years in 1968 and 1969.
Talk at the PVC meet suggested that while that won’t occur immediately, such a change might be as little as two years away.
“That’s just conjecture at this point,” said Chris Chessie, principal of Wells Junior High School and chairman of the Maine Principals’ Association wrestling committee. “We want to continue to provide the opportunity for kids to be recognized at different levels.
“You also have to be very careful because if you do something different, sometimes there are programs that might not want to go forward with it.”
The issue is not confined to Eastern Maine Class C. There were so few full teams competing in Western C a couple of years ago that Bucksport and George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill were shifted from the East to the West in an effort to enhance the competitive balance between the regions.
But little has changed. With two-time defending Class C state champion Foxcroft Academy set to move up to Class B by enrollment next winter under the current reclassification plan making its way through MPA committees, only Dexter among the nine remaining Eastern C schools currently fields enough wrestlers to make a serious championship run in 2014.
Just seven schools — including Bucksport and GSA — currently are part of the proposed Western Maine Class C for the next two-year classification cycle. And only three of those seven — Dirigo of Dixfield, Lisbon and Mountain Valley of Rumford — are likely to field enough wrestlers to compete for team championships.
Chessie said the wrestling committee is aware of the trend but is reluctant to make major changes, lest even fewer schools field teams.
“Hopefully more kids will participate,” said Chessie, himself a former wrestling coach. “We really want to make Class C viable, but if the numbers keep dwindling we may have to look at it and see if there is a different format we can use and continue to recognize as many kids as we do now.”
Wrestling regionals Saturday
Six regional wrestling tournaments will be held around the state Saturday, with the top four finishers at each location advancing to the state championship meet scheduled for Feb. 9 at the Augusta Civic Center.
Recently crowned Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference champion Skowhegan will seek to add the Eastern Maine Class B title to its resume when the Indians host that regional. The doors open at 8:30 a.m. with matches set to start at 9:30 a.m.
Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for students and seniors.
The Eastern B meet will be held at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, with the Eastern C championships at Penobscot Valley High School in Howland.
Western Maine championship meets will be held at Marshwood of South Berwick (Class A), Wells (Class B) and Bucksport (Class C).