By Steve Craig
Portland Press Herald
AUGUSTA — The Mount Desert Island football team appears set to have plenty of competition when it makes the switch to the eight-man code for the 2020 season.
The number of Maine high schools playing eight-man football is likely to more than double this fall, continuing the transition from the traditional 11-man game at many of the state’s smaller schools.
Eight-man football, which debuted in Maine last fall with 10 teams, could expand to 21-24 teams next season. Eleven schools have indicated to the Maine Principals’ Association they are seriously considering making the switch from the 11-man version of the sport, with three other schools viewed as potential candidates. If 24 teams were playing eight-man football, that would represent nearly one-third of all Maine high school football programs.
The overriding factor for schools switching to the eight-man game, which reduces three starters on both offense and defense, is that they can’t attract enough players to play the 11-man version safely and competitively.
The growth of eight-man football has been so rapid that the MPA’s Football Committee voted unanimously Monday to recommend making it a two-class sport with separate championships for large-school and small-school teams.
The committee set a Feb. 28 deadline for schools to declare their intentions on playing eight- or 11-man football. That will allow time to prepare a 2020 set up for review at the March 9 meeting of the MPA’s Classification Committee.
The number of boys playing high school football in Maine declined by 8 percent from 2014 to 2018, in part because of declining high school enrollments and growing concern over the risk of head injuries. Some 11-man football teams in recent years had rosters that dipped below 20 players, forcing school administrators to cancel varsity seasons out of concern for player safety.
Four of those schools — Sacopee Valley, Traip Academy, Boothbay and Telstar — opted for eight-man football last fall. There were no forfeits among the eight-man teams in 2019, and several programs reported increased participation. Many of the eight-man schools were able to play sub-varsity games for the first time in years.
Eight-man football is played without two interior linemen and one back found in traditional football. The field is 40 yards wide instead of 53 1/3 yards, and in Maine, the length of the field remains 100 yards. Having fewer players on the field benefits teams with smaller rosters, particularly when it comes to conducting meaningful practices.
Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director for interscholastic activities, said all 10 of the original eight-man schools will be back this fall. Three schools have fully committed to switch to eight-man football: MDI, Morse and Spruce Mountain, Burnham said. In addition, Camden Hills Athletic Director Jeff Hart has said publicly that Camden will play eight-man.
“We’re making this decision because it gives our program the best chance to succeed at this time,” Hart told the Village Soup website. “Factoring into that is the fact that all the schools that I talked to that went to it this past year were really happy with their decision.”
Waterville and Mount View of Thorndike were scheduled to seek school board approval on Monday. Washington Academy administrators will recommend switching to eight-man to their school board on Thursday. Mountain Valley was set to begin the process with an informational meeting on Tuesday.
Houlton and Stearns, two teams from Class D North, also are expected to make the switch to eight-man, but have not officially committed, Burnham said.
Nokomis, Lake Region and Orono are three more programs that have been pegged as eight-man candidates.
“Last year, a similar amount of teams showed interest and then backed away for public-relation reasons or just wanted to see how it played out,” said Dean Plante, the football coach and athletic director at Old Orchard Beach, which advanced to the inaugural eight-man championship game in November. “Positive growth from a good product and allowing schools of equal size to compete for some state championships.”
Most of the teams that are considering the switch to the eight-man game are from rural areas in central and northern Maine, where many schools have smaller enrollments. If all 14 of the prospective programs make the switch to eight-man, the two-class system would have 13 large-school teams and 11 in the small-school division.
The large-school teams would consist of Mount Ararat (709 students), Camden Hills (693), Gray-New Gloucester (596), Nokomis (583), Morse (583), Lake Region (535), MDI (531), Waterville (516), Yarmouth (509), Ellsworth/Sumner (483), Washington Academy (404), Spruce Mountain (402) and Mountain Valley (375).
The small-school division, for schools with fewer than 375 students, would consist of Mount View (374), Maranacook (361), Orono (338), Houlton (336), Sacopee Valley (310), Traip (255), Old Orchard Beach (243), Dirigo (219), Telstar (199), Boothbay (192) and Stearns (168).
The MPA Football Committee also recommended that the 11-man Class D, for schools with 419 or fewer students, should be a statewide class in 2020, with eight teams (nine if Orono opts to return to 11-man varsity status).
“We need to protect Class D, especially for 2020, to make sure those small 11-man schools are protected,” said Joel Stoneton, athletic director at Winthrop and a member of the committee.
There is no intention to reclassify across the state. No schools from Class A or Class B have indicated a desire to switch to eight-man. The committee also concluded that the current Class C would be able to achieve workable schedules even if Nokomis and Lake Region are added to the expected losses of MDI and Waterville in the North and Morse in the South.
MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow recommended the program switch to eight man at the high school board’s Dec. 9 meeting. He said the Trojans struggled to field enough players during the 2019 season, during which the team’s roster dipped below 30 players.
“If you have to forfeit or you cannot complete the season, you’re out for two years,” Dow told board members at the meeting. “I don’t want to get into that situation. We almost had to do that this year.”
Note: This story has been amended to include specifics about Mount Desert Island’s impending switch to eight-man football for the 2020 season.