David Gross of Bucksport (right) brings down a Mount Desert Island runner during a 2017 game in Bucksport. MDI has announced its intention to play eight-player football next season. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Some northern Maine football programs that have struggled with numbers in recent years opted not to join the state’s new eight-player classification because of concerns about travel considerations.

For Bunky Dow and other supporters of football at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor, preservation of their program has outweighed those concerns. Those sentiments were echoed by the local school board Monday night as it gave unanimous approval for the Trojans to shift from the 11-player version of the sport to the eight-player ranks beginning next year.

“Maybe we can be a trendsetter,” said Dow, the school’s athletic administrator. “We’re going to have to travel wherever we go. We just got back from a four-hour bus trip Saturday to Houlton for basketball so travel’s not going to be a problem.”

This fall, 10 schools opted to forego traditional 11-man football in favor of the eight-player version, adopted for the first time in Maine.

“If no one else joins us we’ll take those long trips, but hopefully there’s enough schools around so we can have North and South divisions of eight-man. We made this decision early to get it going,” Dow said.

Dow recommended the eight-player plan to the school board among four options for football at MDI. The others were maintaining the status quo, forming a cooperative team with another school or dropping the sport entirely.

“That last thing I want to do is drop football, we’ve had it here since 1968,” Dow said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but it offers a lot of opportunities for kids to grow into the next step of their lives and that’s what athletics to me is all about, preparing kids and teaching them the skills of time management, cooperation, teamwork and other things.”

MDI started the 2019 season with approximately 35 players, but injuries quickly began to have an impact and prompted Dow to meet with head coach Mark Arnold and his coaching staff midway through the schedule when it appeared the team might not have enough experienced players to complete the season.

“We finished with 14 healthy bodies playing both ways,” Dow said. “We had a very competitive schedule. We were overmatched in a couple of games but I figured that going into the season. In the other games we were very competitive. A play here and a play there and we could have been 3-5 or 4-4.”

MDI, which won the Class C North championship as recently as 2016, concluded its season ranked ninth in the division with a 1-7 record.

When Dow and the football staff met again after MDI played its final game, there was unanimous support for moving to the eight-player class beginning in 2020. That’s because the program is poised to face the same challenge with participation during the next few years.

According to Dow, this year’s seventh- and eighth-grade football grouping had just 10 players, while the fifth- and sixth-grade ranks did not field a team. The third- and fourth-grade team also had only 10 players.

“We have five seniors graduating and some other kids who I don’t know if they’re going to play or not — we just felt the best thing to do was to make the decision as early as we could,” Dow said.

“This will give the schools we play and the [Big 11] conference we’re in the chance to regroup and see what they’re going to do to fill in our position.”

Dow said any concerns that participants in the eight-player class might receive less recognition than their 11-player counterparts was alleviated by the fact that two eight-player standouts, Connor Crawford of Ellsworth and Gerit Laliberte of Maranacook of Readfield, recently were named semifinalists for the James. J. Fitzpatrick Trophy symbolic of the state’s top football-playing high school senior.

“Kids are still being recognized,” Dow said. “I think it’s a very good product. It’s football, just minus three people, and it’s an opportunity to continue to offer the game to kids who do not want to play another fall sport.”

MDI is the second North region team to join the eight-player ranks, as Ellsworth was an inaugural member of the new class this year. The Eagles finished the regular season at 3-5 and qualified for the large-school division playoffs.

Several other North schools and additional South schools are said to be considering moving to the eight-player ranks.

Dirigo of Dixfield, which cancelled its 2019 schedule after one game this fall, expressed interest in joining the eight-player class when it announced its decision to end its season.

Officials at Spruce Mountain High School of Jay held a recent meeting during which they decided the school will explore eight-player football next season or joining in a cooperative agreement to continue playing 11-player football with a neighboring school.

The football committee of the Maine Principals’ Association is scheduled to meet on Jan. 13, 2020. MPA executive director for interscholastic activities Mike Burnham said schools have been asked to notify that organization by Dec. 20 of any intent to shift to eight-player football for next season.

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...