July 23, 2018
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Struggling high school football programs challenge MPA reclassification process

BDN File Photo by John Clarke Russ | BDN
BDN File Photo by John Clarke Russ | BDN
Members of the Camden Hills football team huddle before the start of a game in September 2010. Camden Hills is seeking Maine Principals' Association approval to move down to Class D in football.
By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Camden Hills Regional High School has a vibrant fall sports program, including three boys soccer teams, three girls soccer teams, cross country, golf, mountain biking, sailing and football.

This autumn alone, 152 boys donned the Windjammers’ red and white school colors.

But while many of those teams experienced success, the six-year-old varsity program struggled mightily. Not only did Camden Hills fail to win a game in Class C East — the Rockport-based school is now 2-30 over the last four seasons — but attrition left a roster that began preseason approximately 30 players strong with barely 20 on a healthy day by late October.

And shortly after the season ended, the head coach and assistant submitted their resignations.

“We really were out of our league,” said Camden Hills athletic administrator Steve Alex, “and it was starting to have an impact on the morale of the kids.”

Camden Hills’ plight is not unique in Maine. Sacopee Valley of South Hiram dropped its varsity schedule last summer after five winless seasons, while Telstar of Bethel is considering its future after scoring its lone win this fall by forfeit before itself forfeiting a subsequent playoff game that victory provided.

And the Ellsworth-Sumner cooperative program has yet to score a victory in its first three years of varsity play as it endeavors — like Camden Hills — to establish a football foothold in a community where soccer has been king in the autumn.

The Western Maine-based Campbell Conference, which includes Sacopee Valley and Telstar, is studying options for enhancing the competitive balance among its football-playing schools, including having crossover games between member teams in different classes based on strength of programs or having struggling teams play each other more than once in a season to avoid potential noncompetitive games against divisional powerhouses.

The Maine Principals’ Association’s football committee, charged with its biennial task of classifying its member schools by enrollment for the next two-year cycle, offered both Camden Hills and Ellsworth-Sumner a hand Monday.

The panel recommended that the two football programs be allowed to play in Class D for the next two seasons — two classes below their designated class by enrollment.

That would mark the first time a two-class drop will have been allowed if the proposal survives the upcoming scrutiny of the MPA’s classification committee, interscholastic management committee and, next spring, its full membership.

“I think the goal was to try to save football for some of these schools that are really struggling,” said MPA football committee member Tim Smith, athletic director at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft.

“I know it’s probably not super popular with the established teams in the lower class and that was brought up today. But I think as long as we keep it on a case-by-case basis, it would be hard to argue that it’s not what’s best for those two programs for this have been allowed.”

Ellsworth-Sumner, with a combined enrollment of 707 as of April 1 that would place it in Class B based solely on enrollment as the MPA classifies teams in all sports its sponsors, recently completed a three-year stay in the state’s smallest-school class.

All new varsity programs are allowed to play down in the smallest-school class — now Class D in the four-class format the MPA re-instituted in 2013. Ellsworth-Sumner was in Class D under that proviso for the last two years, along with a third year as a Class C school under the previous three-class format 2012 when the Eagles were encouraged to join the varsity ranks a year early to fill a scheduling gap created by the demise of the Calais-Woodland program.

Under its current enrollment, Ellsworth-Sumner would be ticketed for Class B next fall without relief from the MPA, but school officials had requested via email that the program be allowed to continue competing in Class D.

Camden Hills joined the varsity ranks in 2009 without playing in the smallest-school division at the time Class C, but in Class B.

The Windjammers earned a playoff berth in 2010, but the last four years have featured few victories, even during 2013 and 2014 when the team petitioned to play down in Class C without the opportunity to advance to postseason play after the format was expanded to four classes.

Alex said the chance to re-establish the program’s viability by playing down a second class is crucial to the Windjammers’ quest for survival.

“In the league that we’re now in, when we first came down to Class C, a lot of those teams came with us,” said Alex. “That didn’t buy us anything in the grand scheme of things. Knowing we’d have to go back and face those same teams again, I don’t know come August what we may or may not have for numbers.

“I think this is a step in the right direction for this football program.”

The recommendation didn’t receive universal support, particularly among representatives from Class D schools, who see their ranks infiltrated by struggling larger-school programs while they have no lower division to fall back on if their teams struggle.

“We make hard choices,” said Jack Trull, former head football coach and current athletic administrator at Class D Old Orchard Beach High School, where field hockey recently was dropped after experiencing decreased participation numbers in the face of a more successful girls’ soccer program.

“Sometimes as a school you have to make tough decisions as to what teams are going to flourish.”

The football panel also proposed new enrollment cutoff limits for each class that would cause a modest number of additional shifts by enrollment.

The Class A ranks would remain the same as in the last two-year cycle with the minimum enrollment dropped from 875 to 840.

The new Class B cutoff between 586 and 839 students would mean that Oceanside of Rockland-Thomaston (571 students) and Fryeburg Academy (559) would drop from Western B to Class C, with Oceanside in the East and Fryeburg in the West.

Replacing those schools in Class B would be Nokomis of Newport, which with an enrollment of 661 moves up after playing down in Eastern C for developmental purposes for the last two years, and reigning Western C champion Leavitt of Turner Center with its enrollment of 613.

Both Class B divisions would have 10 teams under the proposal, as would both Class C divisions with Fryeburg joining the West and Oceanside and John Bapst of Bangor in the East.

John Bapst, with 470 students, would move up by enrollment from Class D to Class C, where the cutoffs are between 460 and 585 students. John Bapst would be the sixth-smallest school in Class C, ahead of Spruce Mountain of Jay (465) and reigning state champion Winslow and Foxcroft Academy (both 464), as well as Wells (449) and Mountain Valley of Rumford (418) — the latter two opting in 2013 to petition up in class for a four-year cycle.

Class D would involves schools with enrollments 459 and less.

Eastern D is likely to field 11 teams for the second straight year, with newcomer Medomak Valley of Waldoboro expected to replace John Bapst. Medomak Valley played an exhibition schedule against most of the Eastern D schools last fall.

Camden Hills presently is penciled into Western D, according to the proposal, leaving that division with 10 schools pending any final decision made by Telstar.

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