AUGUSTA, Maine — High school basketball teams advanced to the Eastern Maine high school basketball tournaments at the newly built Bangor Auditorium during the mid-1950s only after qualifying at more localized playdowns held around the region.
Nearly 60 years later, increased travel costs and changing demographics have some involved in the state’s interscholastic sports scene thinking a similar sub-regional approach might be a good back-to-the-future step toward addressing several modern logistical challenges.
And with student enrollments shrinking and migrating south, what about adding a fifth — and perhaps even sixth — class in sports such as basketball, soccer, baseball and softball to reduce the enrollment disparities between the largest and smallest schools in each current division?
And in the spirit of creating more competitive balance, how about the prospect of creating an appeals process similar to one now used in New Hampshire that gives schools an opportunity to to either move up or down individual varsity teams from their enrollment-dictated class and still remain eligible for postseason play?
Such ideas were among the products of a brainstorming session held by the Maine Principals’ Association’s classification committee Tuesday.
“We’re just taking the opportunity to see if what we have currently is fitting all schools,” said committee chairman Bunky Dow, athletic administrator at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor.
“Anything’s open for discussion right now. If there’s something all the parties involved, including the sports committees and the league leaders and the [Maine Principals’ Association], feel strongly about and it’s something that makes sense, we want to look long and hard to see what we can do.”
Normally this would be the off-season for the classification committee, which in March completed its most recent biennial statewide reclassification of teams in the many sports sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association.
But the end of that effort left many involved feeling more big-picture work needed to be done.
“As we went through the process last year, what stood out was the demographics of the state and how challenging it is to put people into classes East and West,” said Gerry Durgin, Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director and a longtime former high school athletic administrator.
Of the approximately 150 Maine Principals’ Association-member high schools from Kittery to Fort Kent, only 27 had increased student populations from 2006 to 2012, according to state statistics. Of those 27 schools, 17 were private entities.
That has meant a drop in the number of Class A (large school) athletic programs statewide and an increase in Classes C and D (smaller school) programs, particularly in the northern part of the state.
“When you looked at the growing number of C and D schools and tried to create some parity in the number of schools in East and West, it was obvious that it’s not possible,” said Durgin. “No matter where that line is, there’s an issue for someone.”
One option that has gained some momentum in recent years — and was included in an Maine Principals’ Association classification study conducted in 2004 — is to add a fifth class for the state’s smallest schools, a notion that was expanded Tuesday to include the possibility of adding a fifth class for the smallest or largest schools and perhaps even a sixth class to address schools at both ends of the enrollment spectrum.
“There are a lot of variables that play into that,” said Dow. “If you take basketball, for example, do you have a place to host another class [tournament], do you have the workers, do you have the officials? All kinds of variables like that have to be worked out.
“I think a fifth class is a good option, but until we explore all those variables it’s probably status quo for the time being,” he said.
Another concern involved dealing with skyrocketing travel costs in trying budgetary times, and the possibility of schools playing more local opponents. Currently the Heal point ratings used to determine playoff seeding in many sports often are the overriding factor in building schedules, as schools seek to play opponents within their class — while sometimes bypassing more nearby foes who compete a lower class that are worth fewer Heal points.
Ideas ranged from tinkering with the Heal points to reduce the point differential between classes to eliminating that point system altogether and turn to a more localized approach that might conclude with individual conferences being responsible for determining their own means of sending representatives to the regional tournaments in Bangor, Augusta and Portland.
“You have teams driving right by other schools and won’t play them because the leagues won’t open up,” said Durgin. “In a time of dollars and cents, travel and competition like we have today, we’re not helping ourselves by doing that and we really need to do something about it.”
The committee plans to meet several more times before beginning their next reclassification process in late 2014, with next steps likely to include developing a survey to gauge the interest of individual schools toward possible changes related to classification issues.
“Would we do something for the next reclassification cycle?,” said Dow. “I don’t know. I’d like to think we could, but we’re not going to do something that’s not well thought out and without looking at all the pluses and minuses.”