Ellsworth High School's eight-player football team warms up during practice at the school in August 2019. Credit: Gabor Degre

As a soft deadline for high school football programs interested in switching to the eight-player model next fall to make their decisions passed Friday, several programs moved closer to shoring up their decisions.

At least three schools, Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, Spruce Mountain of Jay and Dirigo of Dixfield, have expressed plans to compete in the second year of the Maine Principals’ Association’s eight-player division.

The Dirigo and Spruce Mountain decisions were reported this week by the Sun Journal, although Dirigo first will have to receive a waiver from the Maine Principals’ Association. The school shut down its 11-player program after the 2019 season had begun, which under MPA rules is supposed to result in a two-year suspension from varsity competition.

MDI was the first school to announce its decision to begin competing in eight-player football next season after a Dec. 9 school board meeting where the proposal received unanimous approval.

Similar discussions at other schools, including Stearns of Millinocket and Mount View of Thorndike, have been ongoing. Several programs appear to be moving toward pursuing the eight-player option, which this fall involved 10 schools.

“We’ve been discussing that right along since last year, and from the looks of things because a lot of the area schools will be changing to eight-man, we’re probably going to head in that direction,” Stearns assistant principal and athletic administrator Beth Peavey said.

“We’re really looking into that possibility. It’s not a done deal, but we are leaning in that direction.”

Tom Lynch, assistant principal and athletic administrator at Mount View, expressed similar sentiments.

“We wanted a little more time to definitely make up our minds, but if I have to make a call today we would go eight-man,” he said.

Stearns — the smallest football-playing school in the state with 168 students as of the start of the latest MPA classification cycle — completed the 2019 season with numbers in the upper-20s as a cooperative entry with neighboring Schenck of East Millinocket.

But Mount View and other Little Ten Conference Class D North schools, including Washington Academy of East Machias and Houlton, also are reportedly among those considering the eight-player option. That would change the dynamics of 11-player competition in that conference considerably.

One option suggested is to have a single statewide Class D division in 2020. That would be similar to what exists in Class A.

“If some of the larger schools are the only ones that are going to wind up being 11-man, it’s a question of student safety and that’s what we want first and foremost, for our students to learn the game but be safe,” Peavey said.

Stearns-Schenck finished 3-5 this season and qualified for the LTC playoffs as the No. 6 seed.

For Mount View, with an enrollment of approximately 340, continuing a viable football program is a numbers game. Lynch said it started the season with 25 players, including 12 seniors, and couldn’t safely field a JV team with many players already logging lots of time in varsity games.

“With a couple of injuries and a couple of people who decided it just wasn’t fun anymore, we were down to 19 kids,” Lynch said. “On any given day if we had a sprained ankle or two, we were down to 15 kids and it wasn’t good.”

The Mustangs finished 1-7 and nearly half of the roster is set to graduate.

“We’ll have about 12 kids coming back next season with any high school football experience at all,” Lynch said, “and if every single eighth-grader that played last year decided to play it would put us at 22 and I’m not going to start a year out without 25 that I know are going to be there every day,” Lynch said.

The Mount View school district fielded 19 middle-school players in grades 6-8 this season, but there weren’t enough players to sustain the local youth program.

“Most of the feedback I’ve been getting is to go eight-man,” he said.

The MPA requested that schools planning to shift to eight-player football let it know before the holiday break to allow time for that information to be compiled in time for the MPA Football Committee’s Jan. 13 meeting.

Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA’s interscholastic division, said that was not considered an ultimate deadline because some schools and communities continue to discuss their options.

The football committee must determine how many teams will play eight-player football in 2020, as well as how those teams will be organized and how any changes could affect the 11-player classes.

The trend toward eight-player football has been several years in the making. It is the result of numerous issues that have reduced participation such as a shrinking student population. Maine has the highest median age of any state in the country at 44.9 years. There also are more sports offerings at many high schools and concerns continue about the incidence of injuries, including concussions.

Those factors led to the introduction of the MPA’s eight-player class this fall. It included 10 teams divided into large-school and small-school divisions. Each division had a four-team playoff leading to a state championship game between the large-school champion and the small-school champion.

Mt. Ararat of Topsham, the large-school champion, defeated small-school champion Old Orchard Beach 58-25 to win the first MPA eight-player football title.

Whether the same format remains in place for 2020 will depend on the number and location of schools that are competing in the eight-player ranks.

A dramatic increase in membership could lead to two, eight-player state champions being crowned, and scheduling could be based more on geographic considerations.

This season, Ellsworth-Sumner was the only program north of Augusta to compete in eight-player football. But the addition of MDI and the potential moves of Mount View, Stearns-Schenck and other northern entries might help alleviate some of the travel considerations for those programs.

One thing not expected to take place when the football committee convenes next month is an immediate revamping of the other classes statewide. Classification for football, and other MPA-sanctioned activities, is in the first year of a two-year cycle.

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...