Caribou High School's Parker Deprey shoots the ball while guarded by Cape Elizabeth High School's Andrew Hartel in the boys Class B state championship basketball game at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Saturday, March 2, 2019.

As Maine’s population and school enrollments continue to decline, might the likes of Presque Isle, Caribou, Mount Desert Island, Old Town and Hermon have to bypass the Cross Insurance Center to play their tournament basketball in Augusta in the near future?

It’s one option on the table this winter as the Maine Principals’ Association classification committee spends extra time studying ways to maintain competitive balance in basketball where shrinking enrollments often push more programs to the small-school classes.

The committee also has been dealing with the expected growth of eight-player football next fall from 10 to at least 16 schools.

A proposal originally floated in 2019 would move more than 30 basketball programs to different classes. That includes the shift of the schools mentioned above — along with Waterville, Belfast and Oceanside of Rockland — from Class B North to Class A North.

The Class B North tourney is held in Bangor, while the Class A North event is played at the Augusta Civic Center.

“Last year we had a big proposal for basketball where we were going to move 32 schools, but we didn’t feel like we had enough time to give people notification of all the movement,” MPA classification committee chair and MDI High School athletic director Bunky Dow said, “plus we wanted to talk with the chairs of the committees and tournament directors at all three sites to see what their feelings were.”

There is precedent for such moves as both Hampden Academy and Brewer, both located adjacent to Bangor, travel to Augusta for the Class A North tourney.

“Even though it probably would have done a real good job of leveling the playing field by evening out the number of teams in each region or each class, it was too quick to do it at that time,” Dow said. “But this is our off-season, and one of the things we wanted to do now was re-look at it.”

Under the proposal, Skowhegan, Hampden Academy and Messalonskee of Oakland would move from Class A, and playing tournament games in Augusta, to Class AA and playing regional semifinals and championship games in Portland.

Bucksport, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, Central of Corinth, Dexter and Fort Kent would move from Class C to Class B while Schenck of East Millinocket, Deer-Isle Stonington and Machias would shift from Class D to Class C.

That would put 11 North schools in Class AA, 17 in Class A, 13 in Class B, 17 in Class C and 12 in Class D.

By comparison, the current North breakdown is eight in Class AA, 12 in Class A, 17 in Class B, 20 in Class C and 15 in Class D.

Similar changes would take place in the South under the proposal. There, Class AA would shift from eight to 10 schools, Class A from 13 to 16, Class B from 12 to 14, Class C from 21 to 16 and Class D remaining at 12 schools.

South schools that potentially could move are Marshwood of South Berwick and Biddeford (Class A to Class AA); York, Leavitt of Turner Center, Lake Region of Naples, Freeport, Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth (B to A); and Hall-Dale of Farmingdale, Waynflete of Portland, Traip Academy of Kittery and Old Orchard Beach (C to B). North Yarmouth Academy, which petitioned up to its status in Class C South, would remain in C South by enrollment under the proposal.

“The reason five classes were put in was to try to even out the classes the best we could, but this [proposal] has some major impact about where 32 schools were going to go,” Dow said.

The impact for some schools under such a plan would be considerable. It not only could include more travel for team buses that pass through Bangor on their way to Augusta, but also could affect tournament attendance. Some of the Class B North programs that traditionally attract large crowds would face significantly longer tourney trips to play in the “A” tournament.

“The MPA wanted time to think about that because there were some big schools that have good followings and that could have a big impact,” Dow said.

Any changes wouldn’t come until at least the 2021-2022 season, and fluctuating enrollments or revised enrollment cutoffs made during the interim could affect where schools are classified.

More questions than answers

Even if the idea doesn’t become reality, the proposal — along with the changing high school football landscape — is prompting the MPA to reconsider how teams in all sports are classified.

A recent MPA survey asked the 151 member schools several questions about additional criteria that might be considered for classification purposes beyond school enrollment, which long has been the sole standard.

Among the ideas are averaging spring and fall enrollments or measuring the percentage of a school’s students that participates in athletics. Perhaps there are sport-specific methods for determining classification, or maybe boys and girls teams from the same school should be able to compete in different classes.

Another tactic could be allowing schools that have struggled competitively over time to be allowed to play down a class without penalty. At present, any school that petitions to play in a class below its enrollment level is not eligible for postseason play.

Other items to be mulled include whether there should be a minimum number of teams in each class of a sport, what is an appropriate number of classes for basketball and football and whether there should be a basketball class for schools with fewer than 100 students.

One other question that wasn’t on the survey but perhaps is at the heart of the coming talks is whether it is more important to have an equal number of teams in each basketball class or to emphasize matching schools of similar enrollments even if it means some classes may be significantly larger than others.

“That’s something we’ve got to really have some deliberation about,” Dow said.

He expects the classification committee to meet once or twice more during this academic year to continue discussions before more formally considering any changes next year, the second year of the two-year classification cycle.

The MPA is not averse to major change. The addition of a fifth basketball class in 2016 and the implementation last year of eight-player football are two recent examples.

Moving away from relying solely on enrollment to classify teams would be another big move, but it may be time to consider such an option.

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...