One byproduct of the steadily shrinking enrollments of Maine public high schools and the recent addition of a fifth class for basketball has been an easing of boundaries among the state’s athletic conferences.
As leagues that once were limited to schools from a single class now represent four or even five classes, in some cases, the need has intensified for cooperation among conferences in an effort to develop regular-season schedules for athletic programs of similar enrollments.
Examples of that increased teamwork include the basketball schedules of the four Class AA schools in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference: Bangor, Edward Little of Auburn, Lewiston and Oxford Hills of South Paris. Each fills out its schedules with as many as six games against schools they likely will face at tournament time from the Southwestern Maine Activities Association based in York and Cumberland counties.
Most schools in the Downeast Athletic Conference that encompasses Washington County and easternmost Hancock County now have dual membership in either the Aroostook League or Penobscot Valley Conference.
The two largest leagues in the northern two-thirds of the state, the PVC and the KVAC, are talking about developing cross-conference matchups in several sports — perhaps as soon as this fall.
“We’re trying to improve scheduling for teams to make it more competitive for everyone,” Mark Babin, athletic administrator at Nokomis Regional High School of Newport and KVAC president, said.
Conference officials have talked before about helping each other out in individual sports such as basketball and field hockey, and the concept was raised again at a recent athletic directors advisory meeting.
Follow-up talks regarding specific sports are planned with basketball, field hockey, soccer and wrestling likely to be addressed first.
Ten of the 14 schools in Class B North field hockey last fall were from the KVAC while only four were from the PVC. So while the KVAC teams played full Class B schedules, PVC “B” schools turned to its league’s Class C programs to generate a full, 14-game slate of regular-season contests.
“With just (four) ‘B’ schools we get hurt because we’re playing a ‘C’ schedule,” Bunky Dow, activities director at Mount Desert Island High School of Bar Harbor and chair of the Maine Principals’ Association classification committee, said. “That’s not good, so hopefully what we’re talking about in scheduling out of conference will help alleviate that problem.”
In Class B North basketball this winter, 13 of the 17 schools were from the PVC/Big East Conference compared to just four from the KVAC. There were only three KVAC teams among the 13 schools in Class C South.
That left KVAC “B” North basketball programs scheduling some Class A opponents while the league’s Class B South schools added “A” foes and/or contests against teams from the more southerly based Western Maine Conference.
“We’re trying to help those teams get a better schedule and the PVC would like some help with some other sports like field hockey,” said Babin, who added, “everything is on the table.”
Two priorities for the KVAC and PVC as league officials consider cross-conference scheduling are maintaining the traditions of their respective conferences and ensuring quality schedules for their most remote schools.
“One of the things we have to tread lightly on is making sure we maintain the integrity of our leagues because our leagues do some wonderful things for kids,” Babin said. “We also need to protect the outlying schools in all the leagues so none of those schools get passed over on scheduling.”
KVAC and PVC encompass wide geographic regions. The KVAC ranges north to south from as Bangor to Brunswick and east to west from Belfast to South Paris. The PVC stretches north to south from Caribou to Deer Isle-Stonington and east to west from Calais to Greenville.
“I wouldn’t mind playing Belfast and Oceanside (of Rockland-Thomaston),” Dow said. “We’ve got to take care of our league people first but if the option’s there, why not play? I think it helps because from what I’ve heard everybody wants to play competitive schedules against teams they’re going to face in the playoffs.
“I think it’s a win-win for everybody involved as long as everyone is taken care of and nobody’s left out.”
Conference schedules for the next two-year cycle won’t be formalized until after the MPA completes its biennial reclassification of all varsity teams in all sports in April.
That means some cross-conference scheduling between the PVC and KVAC could be implemented as soon as this fall.
“It’s exciting, it really is,” Babin said. “There are a lot of good rivalries that could come back and some good competition.
“Why shouldn’t Nokomis play Foxcroft in field hockey? They’re one of the closest schools to us and we’re both in Class B, but right now we don’t play them.”