High school basketball is the sporting tie that binds Maine’s smallest towns and largest cities.
Even the tiniest schools usually have enough kids for a basketball team, and the different classifications of the statewide playing field have enabled communities large and small to celebrate regional and state championships.
But just how many classes are appropriate for a state with approximately 150 participating high schools ranging from the islands of Islesboro, North Haven and Vinalhaven to the 1,511 students at Lewiston High School?
It’s an ongoing conversation, one that led to the addition in 2015 of a Class AA division for the largest basketball-playing schools. That was done to help reduce the enrollment disparities between the largest and smallest schools in each class and maintain competitive balance during a time when shrinking enrollments statewide have threatened to create logjams in the small-school classes.
Similar challenges now are motivating Maine Principals’ Association officials to create an ad hoc committee to revisit the state of the state’s high school basketball system during the next year and recommend whether any changes should be made to the five-class format.
“Even within some of the leagues across the state there’s no agreement,” said Mike Burnham, MPA interscholastic executive director and liaison to the basketball committee.
“Some schools feel the [enrollment] cutoffs between classes should be higher and their schools and schools of like size should be dropped down. Others are on the opposite side where they think the numbers should be dropped and some of those Class D or C schools should be moved up. I don’t think going into this that anybody’s going to think it’s going to please everyone. The underlying agenda is what’s best for basketball.”
A proposal introduced in 2019 would have changed the classification of more than 30 high school basketball programs — nearly 20 percent of Maine teams.
That proposal, which the MPA classification committee declined to address at the time, would have created some interesting geographic changes concerning tournament destinations. Presque Isle, Caribou, Mount Desert Island, Old Town and Hermon would have been among the schools bypassing the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor to pursue regional championships 70 miles south at the Augusta Civic Center.
“I think the groundwork to have an ad hoc committee look at basketball classification started then,” Burnham said.
The classification committee recently completed work to update its placement of schools in enrollment-based classes for all interscholastic sports for the next two school years. Those recommendations await final approval later this month by the full MPA membership.
“The committee set a philosophy early on that they didn’t want to make drastic changes,” MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson said at the time, citing the trend of most schools getting smaller and only a handful growing in enrollment.
That low-key approach was in part a concession to the focus of providing safe, competitive options for student-athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the bigger-picture conversation about how best to organize the state’s most popular interscholastic sport given the pace of declining enrollments at most schools continues.
“It made perfect sense because of the pandemic to have as few changes as possible with any of our sports this time, but now we have time so let’s look at it,” Burnham said.
“I think everything is open to discussion.”
The ad hoc panel is expected to include representatives from each high school basketball conference, the MPA basketball and classification committees, the Maine Association of Basketball Coaches and officials from the Bangor, Augusta and Portland tournament sites.
“Is it now time to look at going back to four classes?” Burnham asked. “Is it time to look at expanding to six classes and what would that look like? What would the tournament look like?”
Any changes recommended by the panel and ultimately approved by the MPA membership would not take place until at least the 2023-24 school year.
“I don’t think going into this that there’s a preconceived agenda as to what should and shouldn’t happen,” Burnham said. “What we’re hoping for is to have at least the first meeting this spring to start the conversation.”