Orono Red Riots at football practice in August.

As the second half of the high school football season kicks off in all but Class A this weekend, plenty of storylines on and off the field have spurred interest in the sport around the state.

Long before the season started reclassification produced major change, as the Class A ranks were thinned to all but the eight largest football-playing schools in the state, while six former A teams — including all three Portland entries — dropped to a suddenly swelled Class B that now includes one-third of the 66 schools that began the season competing in the state’s four 11-player football classes.

One program, Orono, did not make it to the start of the season, opting to drop to subvarsity status due to low numbers in order to maintain eligibility to return in 2020.

Another school, Dirigo of Dixfield, dropped out after playing just one game and under current Maine Principals’ Association policy now will be sidelined for the next two years.

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Several other teams in jeopardy of falling victim to similar circumstances united to form the state’s first eight-player varsity class, and through the midpoint of their eight-game regular season response to this new branch of the sport has been overwhelmingly positive.

All 10 participating schools — Ellsworth being the only one north of Augusta fielding an eight-player football team — have won at least one game, with Maranacook of Readfield the lone unbeaten entering its Week 5 game at home against the Eagles.

One needs only attend one of the games to notice that beyond the fewer players on the field and narrower gridiron, once play begins it’s still just football, and the eight-player ranks are likely to increase as more schools face dwindling participation numbers.

While much has changed already this season, there are consistencies. Three defending state champions — Class A Thornton Academy of Saco, Class B Marshwood of South Berwick and Class D Wells — have been dominant, though Wells has moved up to Class C by enrollment and takes a 32-game winning streak into Friday night’s key crossover game at undefeated Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield.

The regular-season Game of the Year may have already been played in Week 2, when Thornton Academy rallied from a 14-point deficit to edge Marshwood 28-27 in their battle of champions by denying the visiting Hawks a two-point conversion with 18 seconds left.

That game may be rivaled this Saturday, however, when Thornton hosts fellow Class A unbeaten Bonny Eagle of Standish for what likely will be the top seed for the upcoming playoffs.

Around the North region, Bangor in Class A and Brewer and Hampden in Class B continue their rebuilding efforts, with all three hoping to build on one-win first halves of their schedules.

The renewal of the regular-season rivalry between Bangor and Brewer to open the season marked a special night of hope for both programs, with Brewer getting off to a fast start and Bangor subsequently taking control en route to a 42-21 victory before a large, enthusiastic crowd at Cameron Stadium.

Brunswick looks to be the midseason class of Class B North again after a convincing Week 4 victory over previously unbeaten Lawrence of Fairfield. Cony of Augusta joins Brunswick as an unbeaten halfway through the schedule while Windham, winless in Class A in 2018, is off to a 3-1 start.

Winslow dropped an 18-6 decision at Wells in Week 1 but has been dominant since then, outscoring Nokomis of Newport, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro and two-time defending Class D North champion Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft by a combined 207-27 to make their Class C North brethren take notice.

MCI is the lone unbeaten left in the division heading into back-to-back home tests against Wells and Winslow in Weeks 5 and 6, while Hermon is back near the top of the standings after reaching the regional championship game for the first time last fall.

Another C North team, Belfast, is off to a strong 3-1 start under first-year head coach Brian Goff after edging Midcoast rival Oceanside of Rockland 7-6 last weekend.

Hermon (3-1) faces a big home game Friday night against undefeated Class D North leader Bucksport.

The Golden Bucks have taken early control of the Little Ten Conference by winning their first four games by a combined 185-13 thanks to a big, physical front line, a powerful running game and a skilled but less-used passing attack under long-time head coach Joel Sankey.

Foxcroft Academy (2-2) has dropped crossover games to Winslow and unbeaten Class C South power Leavitt of Turner Center, while 3-1 Dexter has emerged as a solid D North contender with a big game looming at Tiger Field against Foxcroft on Oct. 12.

Houlton and Mattanawcook Academy also are battling for winning records, with MA edging the Shiretowners 21-18 last weekend in Lincoln.

Other late-season games of note around the state include Wells at Leavitt on Oct. 12, Kennebunk at Marshwood on Oct. 18, Hermon at Winslow on Oct. 19, MCI at Hermon and Bucksport at Foxcroft on Oct. 25, and Thornton Academy at Scarborough as the Class A season concludes the weekend of Nov. 1-2.

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...