With the number of high school football players trending downward for the better part of a decade, one additional challenge facing coaches is to maintain the interest of younger participants who may not be quite ready for the varsity experience.
Roster sizes in the 30s and even the 20s have left some programs unable to field junior varsity squads, leaving many freshmen and sophomore players without a full schedule of games against their peers in order to improve as they grow into varsity status.
Enter what is known in eastern Maine, at least, as “JV jamborees.”
This marks the fifth year that area schools unable to field a subvarsity football team may send less experienced players to a series of Monday evening contest where they are divided by participating coaches into two teams of as equal talent as possible.
“Obviously the numbers statewide in football have started to decline and one of the concerns is that the younger kids aren’t getting the reps they need in order to improve and more importantly have a good experience playing football,” said Orono High School athletic administrator Mike Archer, one of the prime jamboree organizers.
“It’s not encouraging for kids to come out and their main job of the week is to prepare the varsity for a game and then not see the field themselves on Friday night and be told that you don’t have a (JV) game on Monday night, either. Then to repeat that cycle eight weeks in a row … You don’t tend to hold onto players that way.”
The 2018 JV jamboree season in the area begins at 7 p.m. Monday when 70 to 80 players from several schools will gather at Husson University in Bangor for the first of four games this fall. The two blended rosters also will play Sept; 24 at Husson before the scene shifts to Orono High School on Oct. 1 at 5 p.m. and then to Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor for the final game at 5 p.m. on Oct. 15.
“We usually wait a couple of weeks into the season before we start just to get a feel for where everyone’s numbers are and who can and who can’t field JV teams,” said Archer. “We first want to take care of the schools that can field JV teams and get their schedules set in stone so their kids can play every Monday. Then we take the schools that can’t play JV games and develop the jamboree schedule.”
Schools participating in this year’s JV jamborees include Ellsworth-Sumner, Orono, Stearns of Millinocket and Washington Academy of East Machias from the Class D North Little Ten Conference and John Bapst of Bangor, MDI and Old Town from the Class C North Big 11 Conference.
“I don’t know if other leagues are doing this, I’ve mentioned it to other ADs across the state that this is what we do,” said Archer. “Geographically we’re as spread out as anybody but I think it says a lot about the commitment of the league and those schools that are willing to send their kids two hours one way on a bus to play a game at 5 and get home at 10:30 on a Monday night. That’s how important it is to these programs.”
Archer and Orono High School football head coach Bob Sinclair devised the jamboree concept for the region, with the inaugural game in 2014 involving Houlton, Orono, Stearns and Washington Academy.
“We discovered that roughly half of our league (LTC) didn’t have enough players for a JV schedule, so we thought what we could do for those schools that couldn’t play JV on their own to get their kids together and give them a chance to play?” said Archer. “That’s where we came up with the jamboree.”
Three or four jamborees have been held annually since that first game, and their popularity has grown steadily both among the number of participating schools and players.
“It’s something we’re doing to preserve the numbers we have and to let the kids know we’re willing to look outside the box and do anything we can to get them meaningful playing time,” said Archer.
The teams play a base 5-2 or 4-4 defense, and offenses consist of approximately 25 rushing and passing plays appropriate for the subvarsity level. The games do not include kickoffs or punt returns.
“The first game is a little slower than the rest because we’re just trying to get to know the kids and get them placed on teams that we think will make for a competitive game,” Archer said. “But by the time we play that last game on Oct. 15 at MDI it will be really neat.”
Archer believes it’s crucial to the future of football in the area to provide as many opportunities for meaningful playing time as possible for less experienced players.
“What are we offering those kids if all we’re asking them to do is come out and work to make the varsity better every week and then get no playing time themselves on Friday night, or if they do it’s in the second half with running time,”he said. “We can’t expect our numbers to grow if we’re not going to play kids.”