Ellsworth High School football players warm up during practice at the school on Aug. 26. The school has opted to play 8-person football this season for the first time. Credit: Gabor Degre

The 10 inaugural members of Maine’s eight-player football division boast plenty of tradition in the sport.

Yarmouth High School was the Class C South champion as recently as 2015 after capturing back-to-back state championships in 2010 and 2011. Boothbay won state titles as recently as 2001 and 2002, and won the Western Maine “C” crown in 2007.

Old Orchard Beach, Telstar of Bethel, Traip Academy of Kittery and Maranacook of Readfield also have experienced state championship glory during their football histories. But declining enrollments and smaller player rosters prompted those teams as well as Ellsworth, Mt. Ararat of Topsham, Sacopee Valley of South Hiram and Gray-New Gloucester to tackle the eight-player division of the sport.

Now all 10 have renewed visions of winning a gold ball in their new Maine Principals’ Association-sanctioned home.

“I now feel confident that we have a shot at going someplace as opposed to going in with 16 or 17 guys in 11-man and not knowing how we were going to be able to stay on the field for a whole game,” Ellsworth senior quarterback and defensive end/linebacker Connor Crawford said.

Participation in boys 11-player football nationwide decreased in all but seven states last year, but participation in six-player, eight-player and nine-player versions of the sport all increased. The largest growth during the 2018 season (19,554 to 20,954) came in boys eight-player football.

The debut of eight-player football in Maine not only has fostered renewed spirit in programs that had struggled numerically, but in communities where football remains a rite of autumn.

“I’ve had the occasional conversation of ‘why keep football, but it was very few and far between,” Old Orchard Beach football coach and athletic administrator Dean Plante said. “Most people are pumped and excited about it.”

There’s also the sense that eight-player football in Maine is in line for continued growth.

“Over the next two to five years I think you’ll see the number of eight-man teams double, maybe more, when people see that it’s successful and the MPA has set us up so it’s competitive and it’s sanctioned,” Plante said.

And while most of the current eight-player teams hail from southern Maine, it’s likely that the next spurt in membership may come from the north. Several Class C and Class D programs are battling low numbers, including some Little Ten Conference members.

“If they weren’t all in the same conference there’s no doubt their hands would have been forced,” Plante said. “They looked at it as they each get two or three games a year when they know they’re going to be competitive, but they’re not competing for gold balls, they’re competing for a couple of wins.”

With fewer players on the field — the eight-player surface is narrowed from 53 1/3 yards to 40 yards — expectations are for high-scoring games.

Will that lead to some lopsided scores that have concerned followers of 11-player football over the years? Perhaps, but maintaining the sport is the top priority.

“[Lopsided scores] usually comes down to the adults being a little hurt,” Plante said. “The kids are playing because they want to play, and they get over it much quicker than we do.”

As to who may claim the first eight-player state champion in state history, it’s anyone’s guess.

Mt. Ararat, which went 2-6 in Class B South last fall, is the largest school competing in eight-player football this year with 705 students and boasts a top returning offensive threat in Riley Morin.

Old Orchard Beach, one of five eight-player squads that played in the former Class E developmental division in 2018, is expected to return a veteran nucleus of 12 seniors from its 4-4 team.

Maranacook finished 5-3 in Class E last fall, while Boothbay also went 4-4, and Traip Academy was 3-5.

Ellsworth is coming off a 3-5 season in Class D North. While the Eagles are hovering in the upper teens in terms of roster size, coach Duane Crawford’s club is enthused about competing in the new division. The Eagles open Sept. 6 with a home game at Tug White Field against Yarmouth.

“I think once the other students and parents and people across the state see this, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, this is fun to watch and I want to be part of it,’” coach Crawford said. “You’ve got to give it a chance to grow.”

Yarmouth went 3-5 in Class C North last autumn before losing to eventual regional champion Fryeburg Academy in the playoffs. The Clippers welcome back veteran head coach Jim Hartman, who coached Yarmouth from 2004 through 2011 and guided the team to two state titles before spending the past seven years at Portland High School.

“I think the people coming out to watch it are going to see that it’s really not much different,” Ellsworth quarterback Connor Crawford said. “There’s three fewer guys, but a lot of the stuff we’re running isn’t a lot different from what we’ve run in the past, just some tiny changes.

“For me it’s football and I love football, so I as long as I’m playing football I don’t have any problem with it at all.”

Watch: This is how eight-person football works

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...