Alex Gorham of Dirigo High School crosses the goal line to put the Cougars up 6-0 over Mountain Valley last season. Dirigo has dropped from Class D to Class E for the 2018 season. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Alex Gorham has been in the middle of some big wins at Dirigo over the last three years.
Despite often being outmanned by a couple of dozen players, the Cougars won more games than they lost (15-13) over the past three years, including a couple of Class D playoff games and a historic victory over rival Mountain Valley to start the 2017 season.
Given that recent history, it would be easy for Gorham to lament spending his senior season in Class E instead of Class D. But the Cougars captain counts himself and his teammates lucky to be on the field at all.
“I think we’re just excited to be playing football. That’s the main thing,” he said.
Now entering its second season, Class E has become known in football circles as “the rebuilding league” for struggling programs hoping to maintain or renew playing a varsity schedule.
Class E’s inaugural season included six teams, four of which — Boothbay, Camden Hills, Sacopee Valley and Telstar — didn’t have varsity programs in 2016. Teams in Class E played eight-game schedules, mostly against each other, although some had crossovers. One school, Traip Academy, forfeited the final five games of the season due to not having enough players.
At the end of the season, the top four teams in the Heal points participated in a playoff, which was not officially recognized by the Maine Principals’ Association. Boothbay defeated Maranacook for the unofficial Class E title, 20-14.
Although the MPA is considering offering eight-man football when the next reclassification cycle takes place in the fall of 2019, assistant executive director Mike Burnham said the MPA’s football committee has deemed the first season of Class E to be a success.
“I think it’s done exactly what we hoped it would do,” Burnham said. “It has given those schools that are doing everything they can to keep football at the varsity level an opportunity to have football as a sanctioned sport, but not treating it like the other (four classes).”
Dirigo isn’t the only team dropping to Class E this season. Class D rival Old Orchard Beach and Freeport, which made the Class C playoffs two years ago, are also joining what is now a nine-team conference.
The Cougars reached the Class D playoffs last season with a dangerously thin roster that was depleted by a mountain of injuries. While that was a source of pride for the team, the likelihood of this season turning into another high-wire attrition act, with about a half-dozen less players already to start the season, made a Class E schedule more palatable.
Dirigo coach Jim Hersom won’t allow his team, which suited-up 19 players for a preseason scrimmage against Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale, to feel sorry for itself despite the low numbers and lower classification.
“I don’t know what the other teams in our league are like as far as numbers, but we’re going to do the best we can, stay positive, and we’re going to persevere at times, I’m sure,” Hersom said. “We’re going full steam ahead. We’re not standing around saying, ‘Poor Dirigo.'”
“I think this is where we belong right now,” Gorham said. “We can keep kids around, not intimidate them playing bigger teams. We’re playing teams that are a lot more at our size and level, so some of the younger kids can play a lot more and feel a lot more comfortable and not be scared away.”
“Hopefully, it builds up the program the next few years. I know we’ve got a lot of kids coming up the next few years, so hopefully that will help out keeping us going,” he added.
Dirigo sophomore quarterback Cole Brown said being more competitive, regardless of class, will do more to increase numbers at Dirigo that losing at a higher level.
“The best way to get kids to join sports teams is to win,” Brown said. “It would have been a lot harder for us with low numbers to compete in Class D. All we have to do is go out and win more games and in the future we’ll be able to get more kids.”
In terms of enrollment, Dirigo (263) falls somewhere in the middle of Class E, although much closer to the school with the lowest enrollment, Telstar (212) than the one with the highest, Camden Hills (667).
Gorham pointed out that the Cougars aren’t that far removed from playing the same schedule as they had his freshman year.
“It’s a lot of teams we’ve played before — Old Orchard, Traip, Boothbay, Maranacook,” Gorham said. “It should be pretty good competition.”
Of course, the whole point of Class E is to get out of it sooner rather than later. Hersom believes Dirigo’s stay in the rebuilding class will be fairly short.
“We’ve got a good group at the junior high,” Hersom said. “Eighth-grade this year has close to 20 kids playing football. If we can just survive for a couple of years until those other kids get up here, I think we’re going to be OK.”
Dalton Berry, left, and Jack Lavorgna, right, of Dirigo stop Ethan Laubauskas of Mountain Valley in Dixfield last season. Dirigo has dropped from Class D to Class E for the 2018 season. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)