AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine Principals’ Association committee decided Wednesday to move forward with an effort to develop an eight-player division for high school football in the state that, if approved, would be implemented in 2019.
“Over the past few years we’ve seen programs struggle with numbers and because of that we’ve seen much more support for a program like eight-man football,” said MPA assistant executive secretary Mike Burnham. “I think the time is now to look at something like this, not only to provide opportunities for those schools that are struggling but maybe create opportunities for some other schools.”
The idea is the latest effort to address shrinking participation numbers in football programs around the state.
“We’re seeking opportunities for schools to have successful and well-functioning football programs, and looking at other national models of different places that have done that as an alternative to 11-man football,” said Brendan Scully, athletic administrator at Massabesic High School in Waterboro and chair of the MPA football committee.
“The feedback I’ve gotten in casual conversations with folks around the state has been very receptive and positive to the idea. It seems to have a lot of momentum now, and it’s a good time to move in this direction,” Scully said.
From 2010 to 2016, participation in high school football dipped by nearly 7 percent in Maine, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The impact of that drop has left many smaller schools with 30 or fewer players at the start of the football season and even fewer toward the end of the year due to attrition.
That often makes having 11-on-11 practices difficult if not impossible and sometimes thrusts younger players into competition against older, mature upperclassmen before they’re physically ready.
“There’s certainly a safety piece because if you don’t have enough players to practice you’re not prepared for Friday or Saturday, and if you’re not prepared for Friday or Saturday then you’re putting kids in bad situations,” Scully said.
“If you can reduce the numbers and create a situation with 20-ish kids on an eight-man football team you can play against each other during the week and be appropriately prepared for a Friday or Saturday. I think the intention here is that the level of competition between the schools playing eight-man football would be comparable so there would be good football games in the end, and that’s what it’s all about, having good competitive matchups, healthy programs competing against each other and exciting football to watch,” he added.
Some 841 schools in 17 states fielded eight-player football teams in 2016, according to the NFHS, with Nebraska and Kansas leading the way.
The MPA football panel discussed several issues involved with creating an eight-player football division in Maine, including field dimensions and whether other factors might be considered in classifying teams besides school enrollment.
One thing officials did agree on is that schools in a Maine eight-player division would compete for a state championship like Classes A, B, C and D and unlike Class E, which doesn’t have an official postseason tournament.
“I think the devil is in the details, and there’s going to need to be quite a bit of work to make sure we’ve addressed all the issues,” Burnham said. “We’re going to have to look at some states that have established an eight-man program and talk with some folks who have participated to see what we might be missing.”
The next step, according to Burnham, will be to spread the word about eight-player football with officials from the state’s various athletic conferences.
“We’ll need to start outlining some of the specifics as they relate to the makeup of the class, and go out and meet with the individual conferences and start to share our thoughts in conversations and take feedback,” Scully said. “Then we can bring that back and form that feedback into something that might not make everybody happy, but I think will be something workable for all.”
The committee wants to have a proposal ready for a vote by the MPA’s full membership next spring.
“This is a classification year,” Burnham said, “and if we want this to become a viable option we’ve got to at least get the framework together so in April it’s in front of the membership, and it’s either approved or not approved — it’s up to them — and that we’re ready to go in another year.”
Which schools might be the first to join the eight-player division if the plan gains full MPA support is uncertain, though some Class E programs may be candidates as well as some smaller Class D schools.
The football committee’s immediate goal is to create a framework for individual schools to consider that option whether it’s next year or beyond.
“I think with any new activity there are always going to be those schools or programs that take a wait-and-see attitude,” Burnham said. “Some might want to see how successful it is before they make that decision to move, but we hope there are enough schools that are ready for this and that we can make it a successful option that can continue to grow.”
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