Maine high school football’s battle for safety, survival

Posted Oct. 06, 2015, at 7:33 a.m.

Steve Waceken understands the position Camden Hills Regional High School officials were in recently when they decided to forfeit the football team’s final five games of the season, citing safety issues related to a dwindling roster.

When Waceken’s oldest son was a senior football player at Stearns High School of Millinocket in 2005, school officials there considered taking a similar step with an undermanned squad.

That team not only survived the season but went on to win an Eastern Maine Class C championship in 2010 that hearkened back to when earlier generations of Minutemen routinely produced title teams in numerous sports, including football.

Today, the paper mills that powered many of the state’s traditional football powers are being mothballed at a rapid rate. With that, the population in those communities has decreased dramatically as young adults go elsewhere to find employment.

That has left school enrollments on the decline, and when combined with other issues such as heightened awareness about concussions, that has meant football rosters are in decline, too.

“More schools are playing football, but fewer kids are playing football per school,” said Waceken, who has coached football in Millinocket for nearly two decades, including this fall as head coach at Stearns. “I think with the NFL and the concussion talks, some parents are saying no, and kids aren’t really fighting back and are either playing another sport or no sport at all.”

Waceken fields a 21-player squad and is familiar with some of the challenges faced at Camden Hills. The Windjammers began this season with 12 freshmen among their 28 players and experienced attrition to the point that it had only 11 players available for a practice just before school officials decided to end its season after three games.

“You could replace their name with our name, that’s what our coaching staff was talking about one day,” Waceken said. “It would be awful easy to do that with a few bad breaks and kids getting hurt, but we’ve been real fortunate so far, and we’re working hard to keep the kids healthy and give them the best chance to compete that we can.”

A magic number?

One of the most frequently discussed safety concerns related to football involves the prevalence of concussions, but there is no established statistical correlation between the frequency of concussions and football roster size.

“As far as I know there are no standard recommendations,” said Dr. Paul Berkner, director of the Maine Concussion Management Initiative based at Colby College in Waterville.

Berkner believes public awareness about the effect of concussions and other head injuries on football is one factor in decreased participation rates at the high school level.

“I think what we’re going to see is that smaller schools are going to have a problem recruiting enough young men to play football,” he said. “The number of kids nationally going into Pop Warner football has declined dramatically over the last couple of years, and I think part of my worry here is that we’re vilifying football. And as we start looking at data … football is a high-risk sport, but women’s soccer is equally high risk.

“My take on this is not whether there are minimum roster sizes but more how do we continue to maintain this sport and whether we want to maintain this sport as a society,” he said.

The National Federation of State High School Associations has established no national mandate for minimum roster size for high school football teams, nor is there a specific standard in Maine.

But there are numbers that raise eyebrows.

“There’s not a magic number,” Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said. “I think any time you get below 20, that’s a cause for concern, but there also have been some programs over the years that have had fewer than 20 that have been very successful.”

Burnham said one factor to consider when assessing roster size is the age of the players. A senior-laden roster is more likely to be able to cope with the demands of the sport than rosters heavily populated by younger players.

“In 2010, Stearns went to a state championship game with around 20 kids, I believe, but they had 12 or 13 seniors,” he said.

New high school football teams in Maine must complete two years of developmental play — typically involving subvarsity competition — before joining the varsity ranks. Burnham added that the decision by any Maine Principals’ Association-member school to field a football program ultimately is made at the local level.

“If a school wants to make the commitment to try to field a program, we want them to have the opportunity to do that because any member school can offer any program that we offer,” he said. “I think you can have those conversations about the sustainability of the program, but ultimately the decision on whether or not to sponsor a program is left up to the school.”

The MPA has adopted several measures in recent years to address safety concerns, including placing limits on contact during preseason and regular-season practices and this year adding a rule that provides for running time during the second half of games with a differential of at least 35 points.

Roster sizes also are monitored in an effort to recognize any programs in jeopardy, such as Camden Hills, or schools that previously suspended their football teams, such as Calais and Sacopee Valley of South Hiram.

The Vermont Principals’ Association takes one additional step.

“If we have a team with 17 players [or fewer], they get a letter from the [Vermont Principals’ Association] football committee just informing them that we are concerned about their numbers, we are concerned about potential injuries, and we’re hoping they have a medical protocol in place to be able to deal with their students,” Bob Johnson, Vermont Principals’ Association associate executive director, said.

While Maine has 76 varsity football programs competing in four classes with North and South divisions, Vermont has about 30 schools playing varsity football in three statewide divisions.

Johnson said that for the first time in Vermont history, one of its varsity football programs, Winooski High School, is dropping the sport after this season because of shrinking participation. As would be the case in Maine, Winooski’s decision to drop varsity football was made locally.

“The bottom line is it’s up to each school to decide whether it’s going to maintain a program or not,” Johnson said.

Participation in Maine high school football has declined 11 percent, from 3,902 to 3,487, from 2010-11 to 2014-15, according to National Federation of State High School Associations surveys, while participation dropped 2 percent nationally.

Coping with roster realities

One commonly held belief among small- and medium-sized football programs in Maine is that maintaining an average of 10 players per high school class would provide a sufficient talent pool for program sustainability.

But most coaches in the northern Maine’s smallest football division, the LTC Class D North, are envious of such lofty numbers.

Just two of the league’s 12 teams, defending champion Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield and Medomak Valley of Waldoboro — a first-year program that is Class C by enrollment but playing its first two varsity seasons in Class D under the Maine Principals’ Association’s developmental policy — began the season with more than 40 players.

Five schools — Stearns (21), Orono (27), Dexter (28), Camden Hills (28) and Ellsworth/Sumner (30) — began with 30 or fewer.

“I think it’s harder and harder to not only start a program but even sustain a program with the emphasis on head injuries and concussions and the fact the vast majority of schools in the state are seeing a decline of enrollment so you have fewer kids to draw from,” said Burnham, who also cited the effect of student-athletes opting to play on non-school teams as they specialize in a single sport.

Veteran LTC coaches have learned to adjust to often volatile participation numbers from year to year.

Twelfth-year Orono coach Bob Sinclair has guided Red Riots’ rosters ranging from nearly 60 players to the mid-20s.

One challenge he and other coaches with small rosters face is occasionally integrating first-year players into varsity competition.

“In our league, it’s not uncommon for a few freshmen from each team to play, and you have to be careful when you do that,” he said. “We’ve got one ninth-grader who plays one way this year and some who play on special teams, and you have to be careful with the situations you put your kids into because there’s a big difference between a 14-year-old young man and an 18-year-old senior — a big difference.”

The largest LTC Class D North roster this year is at MCI, but Huskies’ coach Tom Bertrand once fielded a team there that dipped to as few as 17 players during the season.

“We had to back off some things in practice,” he recalled. “We couldn’t afford any more injuries so we did a lot of skill work and half-line things in practice, but we still knew we needed to go out and compete every week, so we had to get the kids ready to play.

“We slowly got the numbers back up. But when you get down into the midteens, it’s kind of an unnerving feeling about what’s going to happen from week to week, so you go into a little self-preservation mode, for sure.”

Bertrand said among the areas where having more players is better is game preparation, but he added that a small roster doesn’t preclude a successful season.

Comeback trail?

Not all varsity football programs that have struggled with low participation numbers at some point in their history have been relegated to their demise.

Old Town High School compiled a 4-62 record between 2002 and 2009 and played down a class for several seasons in a bid to sustain its varsity viability.

This year’s Coyotes are undefeated and already have eclipsed that eight-year victory total with a 5-0 record after Friday’s 36-28 win at Belfast.

Gray-New Gloucester hadn’t won a game since 2012 until its season opener last month when the Patriots ended a 23-game losing streak by defeating Mountain Valley of Rumford. GNG is 4-1 and battling for a Class C South playoff berth.

And while Stearns has lost its first five games this season, Waceken is hopeful about leading his alma mater back toward upward mobility within the LTC Class D ranks. The Minutemen went 5-3 and qualified for postseason play in 2014.

“My goal taking this on this season was to get this team through this year and look to build the program in the future and doing some things with the Little Giant [youth] league and junior high teams to get the retention rate from them to the high school team a little better,” he said.

Camden Hills, which because of the premature end to its 2015 campaign is ineligible for varsity football competition for the next two years unless it makes a successful appeal to the Maine Principals’ Association, also may get the chance to resurrect its program, which has won just two of its last 35 games.

That area’s Five-Town Community School District scheduled a forum Monday night in the high school gym to discuss the future of football at Camden Hills. Possible options include petitioning the MPA to resume varsity play next season, competing at the junior varsity level or fielding an independent club team.

 

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