BAR HARBOR — With eight-man football likely coming to Maine in some way, shape or form, the field at Mount Desert Island High School is on the verge of looking a lot different under the Friday night lights.
MDI held a meeting with coaches, school administrators, parents and youth sports leaders Tuesday to discuss its options for playing eight- or 11-man football in the coming seasons.
Athletic Director Bunky Dow and head football coach Mark Arnold spoke in support for a switch to a potential eight-man format, which is expected to be implemented in 2019 following Tuesday’s Maine Principals’ Association Football Committee meeting.
“Nothing has been decided yet, but they’re putting these lists of schools out there to prompt schools to make these decisions,” Dow told the audience. “If you’re asking me where we’re leaning right now, I’d say we’re leaning toward eight-man, but there are still some things to get sorted out.”
Last Tuesday, the MPA Football Committee met in Augusta to outline a proposal for how classes would look if eight-man football is to be implemented as proposed last fall. Under the forwarded proposal, the A, B and C classes would while the D and E classes would be scrapped in favor of two eight-man divisions.
The decision comes as participation in high school football numbers has been declining significantly nationwide over the past decade. With data from the National Federation of State High School Associations showing a 16.9 percent decline in Maine’s high school football participation between 2008 and 2017, the MPA began discussing the possibility of adding an eight-man league this past fall.
Eight-man football is played with two fewer players on the line of scrimmage than the 11-man code and one fewer player in the offensive backfield. Defenses on eight-man teams typically use five- and six-man fronts as opposed to the seven or eight used in 11-man football.
“It’s the same game you’ve always played,” said Dow, who referenced that eight-man football is already played in 19 states. “You just have three fewer guys on the field.”
Highlighting an impending decline in the number of players the Trojans will be fielding over the next two years, Arnold referenced the Trojans’ four-game midseason stretch in 2018. Between the team’s third and sixth games of the season, MDI was outscored by nearly 30 points per game as it faced the four teams that went on to compete in the Class C North semifinals.
“Think about that last stretch of our schedule and how tough it was for our kids,” Arnold said. “If we were to add one or two more of those games with the numbers we’re looking at, it is my opinion that we would be seriously jeopardizing the safety of our kids.”
MDI did enjoy much more success in 2016 and 2017, winning a Class C North championship in the former and going 18-4 overall. Yet those seasons came on the backs of senior classes with nine players (2016) and 11 players (2017). Declining numbers in the youth ranks — the Acadian Football League fielded just eight players at the fourth-grade level in 2018 — have raised questions as to whether or not those numbers can approach sustainability at the varsity level in the future.
Although Dow said the option of a cooperative agreement with Ellsworth could be possible, he expressed concerns over that possibility. Combining the two, he said, would lead to a host of issues that would arise from a program that would be forced to combine two communities and two high schools.
“If we did that, where are we going to play? Who’s going to coach?” Dow asked. “Those are all things I don’t want to explore.”
By going to an eight-man format, MDI would have the added benefit of being able to field a junior varsity team. Dow and Arnold both cited JV football as a cornerstone for the building the program, which is currently varsity-only at the high school level.
If a younger, less experienced player is able to play in a JV program, it also means less time on the bench.
“The longer we go without a JV football team, the more it hurts our program,” Arnold said. “If we’re able to field two teams, a varsity team and a JV team, that’s more kids playing more football within our football program.”
The proposal has been met with pushback from many parents and players, the majority of whom expressed their desires to remain an 11-man team. A potential eight-man league would still award a championship trophy and have a season structured the same as the current 11-man divisions, but the feel of the game, some said, would be different.
“You’ve got kids who’ve been wanting to do this their entire lives, and now this has been thrown at them so quickly,” one parent said Tuesday. “We have what I think is the largest group of freshmen that I think you’re capable of getting from that youth program that’s about to come through it, and I think we should give it another two years before we make this decision.”
Schools have until Friday, Jan. 25, to inform the MPA of their intentions regarding eight-man or 11-man football.
Although Dow said MDI is leaning toward choosing the eight-man format, other programs that were listed as potential eight-man candidates, such as Orono and Washington Academy, have told the MPA they will be sticking with the 11-man version of the sport.
The MPA is set to meet again Feb. 11 to go over classifications in all sports for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. Before that, though, the Football Committee will meet next Thursday, Jan. 31, to see where eight-man proposal outlined Jan. 15 stands.
“I feel now that it’s going to be a long meeting,” Dow said. “There are still a lot of questions to be answered. We’ll see where we are after next week.”