It’s not every year that two of the previous year’s state champions switch classes, but 2017 is already an unprecedented one in Maine high school football, even before the opening kickoff on Friday night.
The state’s football landscape underwent some dramatic changes over the last couple of decades, but none more dramatic than the addition of a fifth class and realignment that the Maine Principals’ Association incorporated last spring.
The transformation is best illustrated by the flip-flopping of Wells, which dominated Class C last year en route to a gold ball, and Maine Central Institute, which went undefeated in Class D. Thanks to reclassification, Wells is vying to succeed MCI as Class D champions while MCI hopes to succeed Wells in Class C this season.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. In an effort to make games more competitive, the MPA revamped three of the four existing classes, added a fifth, developmental class, Class E, and encouraged the scheduling of inter-class games to allow for better matchups through more tiered scheduling, and more rivalries.
The smaller the school, the more likely they were to be affected. Class A has the same 14 teams as last year. Class B South shrank by three teams — Leavitt, Morse and York — who will play in Class C South, which in turn lost Mountain Valley, Poland, Spruce Mountain and Wells to Class D South. Madison, a perennial playoff team in C North, also moved to D South to balance out the divisions.
Coaches and players in the tri-county region are optimistic the changes will lead to more competitive games and add intrigue to the postseason.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Chris Kates, who takes over as head coach of reigning D South champion Lisbon after 30 years under Dick Mynahan. “The past couple of years I think it’s been a bad thing for the conference to have bye weeks and teams that were forfeiting and everything else.”
“I’m curious to see how things are going to be with some of the different teams that dropped down into our class,” Lisbon senior Brad Harriman said. “It will change things. The dynamics of the playoffs is going to change, especially.”
The dynamics of many teams’ seasons are going to change, too. Leavitt, whose trophy case contains gold balls from Class B and Class C, is dropping down to C after a rebuilding year in B South. Coach Mike Hathaway believes playing schools that are closer in enrollment will help move the rebuilding process along faster.
“We’re still pretty young. I think being in C, we’ll be able to get away with having a few more sophomores than we could get away with in B,” Hathaway said.
In recent years, Class D South has had to deal with the negative affects of building and rebuilding football programs more than any other conference. Forfeits and schools opting not to field varsity squads have disrupted schedules on almost an annual basis.
Former D South denizens Telstar, Boothbay, Maranacook, Traip and Sacopee Valley are now in the new Class E, where they can focus on establishing or re-establishing struggling programs. The quintet replacing them aren’t just guaranteed to show up on Friday night or Saturday afternoon but present a formidable challenge to perennial powers Lisbon, Oak Hill, Winthrop/Monmouth and Dirigo.
“I think it’s one of the more competitive conferences in the state from top to bottom. I don’t think there is a layup anywhere,” Oak Hill coach Stacen Doucette said.
“We’re only playing two teams that we played last year,” Winthrop/Monmouth coach Dave St. Hilaire said. “And I’ll tell you what, there are no nights off. It’s very competitive, very balanced.”
D South teams will play an eight-game schedule with six conference games and two crossovers. The top six teams will qualify for the playoffs, with the top two receiving a first-round bye — a format most regions in the state will also be using. Playoff seeding will be determined by Heal points rather than the traditional Crabtree ratings.
“Those seventh and eighth teams could be pretty good teams that aren’t in,” St. Hilaire said. “So it’s important to start fast and get yourself into that mix.”
The teams stepping down from Class C aren’t taking a playoff spot for granted, either.
“There are no cake walks here,” Mountain Valley coach Pat Mooney said. “Top to bottom, it may be tougher than Class C South was last year.”
Not only are more competitive games and playoff races a feature of the new D South. Coaches and players are also happy to welcome more familiar foes — most of whom they play in other sports in the Mountain Valley Conference.
“You’ve got Spruce Mountain, you’ve got Madison, Mountain Valley… It’s really the way it should be,” St. Hilaire said.
“We’re excited to play teams we’ve been playing our whole life. These are the teams that we played in middle school and stuff. And it’s some good teams, too,” Mountain Valley senior Ian Brennick said.
The historic impact of the changes will be felt immediately in Rumford and Dixfield when Mountain Valley and Dirigo open the season at Harlow Park. Other historic rivalries around the state such as Cony/Gardiner and Lawrence/Winslow are back.
Despite boosting local rivalries with the changes, the schedule-makers weren’t perfect. For example, those pining for a rematch of last year’s thrilling D South final between Lisbon and Winthrop/Monmouth had to catch them in the preseason. They don’t meet during the regular season.
“Unfortunately, we don’t play Lisbon during the regular season, or Dirigo,” St. Hilaire said.
“For some reason, we’re not playing Winthrop and Oak Hill,” Mooney said.
Some crossover matchups have the coaches scratching their heads, too. Winthrop/Monmouth hosts Ellsworth. In Class C, Leavitt will travel to Bar Harbor to face MDI. But that is part of a compromise that everyone hopes is in the best long-term interests for Maine high school football.
“I think the important thing is the fact that we’re getting strong programs back in the conference and we’ll have 10 solid teams. You’re not going to have to worry about bye weeks, you’re not going to have teams forfeiting,” Kates said. “It’s going to be very competitive.”