For folks who invest some of their free autumn hours in following high school football, much about the sport in Eastern Maine has changed in recent years.

While many fans still find nothing to compare to the community bonding atmosphere football provides, in general fewer are attending the games. Too much other stuff to do, too little time to do it.

There’s also less local radio coverage, another victim of the recession that I read this week actually ended in June 2009. Could have fooled me.

No worry, the Internet has created a new class of Monday morning quarterbacks, most of the anonymous variety.

More and more schools also are struggling with fewer and fewer players due the increased options for recreational opportunity as well as the lack of patience for playing time many kids experience even as underclassmen.

But while all this may suggest a downward spiral for America’s game, there’s also evidence to suggest that’s not really the case.

More and more towns are bucking the current economic travails — whether it’s officially a recession or not — to start new football programs, often purely with private funding.

In Hermon, where the Hawks are in their second year of developmental play, football is so popular that two ticket takers are required to handle the turnout for a schedule of  like-minded schools also working their way toward varsity status or established JV teams.

Hermon, Washington Academy of East Machias and Ellsworth all are on track to join the likes of Camden Hills of Rockport, Mount View of Thorndike, and Nokomis of Newport as newcomers to the football landscape in the coming years.

And who five years ago could imagine tonight’s showdown for first place in the LTC (Eastern Maine Class C) at Alumni Field in Millinocket, where Stearns will host Calais-Woodland in a midseason battle of unbeatens.

Five years ago, anybody from Calais or Woodland who wanted to play football had to cross the Canadian border to play in New Brunswick, but success there led to support for joining the Maine Principals’ Association ranks, which became a reality in 2008. Since then the Silverados have made two straight playoff appearances and the sport has caught on among school-age athletes — despite the absence of a feeder program save for flag football, the team began this season with its largest-ever roster and a class of freshman players numbering in double digits despite virtually no tackle football experience.

And while that team draws primarily from Calais High School and its modest enrollment 269 as of April 1, that’s a giant pool of potential players compared to Stearns, now the state’s smallest football-playing school with its enrollment of 200.

The steady loss of jobs in the proud milltown has left folks of parenting age little choice but to move elsewhere to start careers and families, shrinking the enrollment at the school to a quarter of what it was a generation ago — and leaving local school officials to say this week that they may seek to recruit students from the Far East.

Yet the 29 players who are playing for Stearns this fall, like their counterparts from Calais-Woodland, are competing for the moment, and while a midseason game will not determine a regional champion, the storyline from either side is evidence that in the words of veteran Bucksport coach Joel Sankey, “there’s still nothing like Eastern Maine football on a Friday night.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...