A flurry of new high school football programs around the state since the turn of the century has produced mixed results.
More youngsters from different communities are playing the sport, though a steady decline in school enrollments and some safety concerns related to the sport have resulted in a general decline in roster sizes.
And many of the newer teams have struggled to gain a competitive foothold with more established programs from tradition-laden communities, resulting in a bevy of blowouts each autumn.
“There’s nothing like going into a game and knowing you’re going to get your butt handed to you before the game even starts because of the schedule,” said longtime former Maine high school football coach Mike Haley, now executive secretary of the Maine Football Coaches Association.
Barry Terrill, head coach at Washington Academy of East Machias, can relate to the issue with his program, which will enter its seventh year of varsity play in Class D North in September.
The Raiders typically ground out two to three victories a year until going winless for the first time last fall, but even in the best of times the gulf between themselves and the elite in their division has been substantial.
“One of the biggest issues in the state has always been getting the games to be more competitive,” he said. “Even though there are more teams in the state than there’s ever been, it seems like the balance of power is spread way out. Teams are either really good or really bad and there doesn’t seem to be too much in between.”
Several recent steps have been taken to address the competitive quandary, among them expanding from three statewide classes to four in 2013, tiering schedules within the conferences to match stronger teams against each other and weaker teams against similarly struggling foes, and adding a rule in 2015 providing for running time during the second half of contests when one team holds at least a 35-point lead.
Now comes perhaps the most significant effort to address competitive balance: the inclusion of tier-based crossover games among schools in every classification — particularly Classes B, C and D — to provide every team two non-conference games each season against similarly strengthed opponents either from the opposite geographic division or up or down a class.
In addition, since teams in B, C and D will no longer play its entire regular-season schedule within its conference, league games may now be tiered so that in more cases the perceived strongest teams play each other while weaker teams play each other, providing additional competitive opportunities.
All eight regions, North and South Classes A, B, C and D, will have an eight-game regular-season schedule with either six or eight teams advancing to postseason play based on Heal points, which take into account the opponents a team defeats rather than opponents a team merely plays, as was the case with the previous point system used, the Crabtrees.
“If you’re 1-3 and your league only takes four teams to the playoffs, you might be out after Week 4 and kids know that stuff, especially in this world of social media and all the places you can get scores,” said Dan O’Connell, head football coach and athletic administrator at John Bapst Memorial High School of Bangor and a liaison to the football committee of the Maine Principals’ Association. “That math is pretty easy for kids. They know if they have the four toughest games in the last half of their schedule and they’re already 1-3, they know where they stand.
“Football is a hard sport to keep them interested in if they’re just going through the motions. This will help that.”
Spirit of cooperation
The move toward more competitive scheduling picked up steam two years ago during the previous reclassification cycle when teams are organized into their classes based solely on enrollment.
The MPA football committee encouraged leagues around the state that traditionally control the regular-season schedules and regional playoff formats to seek out new ways to help improve the competitive balance.
That led to numerous meetings among coaches, athletic administrators and other conference officials.
“What they determined was that instead of just trying to balance [enrollment] numbers so that you had an even number of teams in each division, they spent less time with that and more time trying to find a way that the leagues would reach out to other leagues and other divisions to create a much more equitable schedule,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham.
“Really, the whole premise behind this was to try to eliminate the blowouts, the lopsided games, and to get a little more parity in the schedule.”
One byproduct of the talks was to have each of the state’s 78 football-playing schools — including six programs newly reclassified into a developmental Class E — follow a format already utilized by the Western Maine Conference in basketball and create a list of four preferential crossover foes from other regions or classes that potentially could provide a good matchup competitively.
Football officials from around the state held a marathon meeting this spring during the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association’s annual conference, where teams were matched with preferred nonconference opponents when possible or with other competitive foes when the preferences didn’t match up.
“Even some of the real strong programs acknowledged that something needed to change and it just evolved into that we had to make a concrete change to help lesser teams and to help competition,” said O’Connell. “We just drew the line of wanting to provide more competition while making sure no one had to have a bye.”
The new crossover games also have allowed for the restoration of some traditional rivalries that went away over the years due to the reclassification of one of the teams involved.
This fall, for instance, the annual game between Class B Cony of Augusta and Class C Gardiner will be played during the regular season rather than an exhibition, as will a matchup between Class B Lawrence of Fairfield and Class C Winslow.
The state’s 14 Class A schools weren’t brought as directly into this process because there were limited options for crossing over to play a school from another class without one of the programs in its two seven-team divisions being left with a bye.
But as was the case with the other leagues, Class A schedulers were able to use a tiering philosophy to create two games for each team against foes from the opposite geographic region.
Bangor, for instance, will play the other six teams in Class A North this fall, but instead of facing such Class A South powerhouses as Bonny Eagle of Standish and Thornton Academy of Saco the struggling Rams will play Massabesic of Waterboro and Sanford in their crossover contests.
“I think we all have a general want to help teams that maybe are on the downswing and are trying to get back up,” said Windham football coach Matt Perkins. “We want football to be great in Maine, and if you feel you have a good program right now and are in a good place like we’re fortunate to be, we want to play the best around.
“But if we’re on the other side, and who knows, we could be in the next couple of years, we want to make sure that guys are treated fairly. We don’t want football to be bad for kids or coaches. We all know how hard this game is.”
One issue not fostering universal glee among the state’s coaches is the travel sometimes required to create more competitive games. Leavitt of Turner Center, for example, has an Oct. 13 road trip set to face Mount Desert Island, and there are other matchups that might be considered a field trip as much as a mere game.
“Ultimately I know not everyone is ever going to be 100 percent happy with all of the schedules,” said O’Connell, “but by and large we did some things that will make football in the state better.”
How much these scheduling efforts will bridge the competitive divide won’t be known until the games are played, but those involved in the process see the newfound cooperation among conferences as a significant step forward.
“To have all six conferences from B to D to come to the table a number of times to get a draft schedule that included two crossover games statewide was a long, somewhat painstaking process at times,” said O’Connell, “but everyone came back to the same premise.
“No. 1, we wanted to do what was right for football and be more competitive. No. 2, we wanted to make sure nobody had a bye during the season, and No. 3, everybody was considerate of the fact that football and enrollment are cyclical and at some point we usually all have those years when it’s not as good as it has been or better than usual and we all have to move toward creating as many competitive games as possible.
“I think we did that.”