Dirigo’s Cameron Kidder evades Freeport’s Tony Casale during the Class E state championship game in Freeport last month. Dirigo is a candidate to be part of the proposed eight-man football league. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
AUGUSTA — Eight-man high school football is on the verge of coming to Maine next season.
The Maine Principals’ Association’s football committee voted Thursday to replace the Class E developmental league with an eight-man division. Classes A, B, C and D would remain under the current 11-player format.
The eight-man format is seen as an alternative for programs that have been struggling to attract enough players for traditional 11-man football. Amid growing concerns about safety, football participation in Maine declined 16.9 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual participation survey. Participation numbers for 2018 are not available.
Jim Leonard, the athletic director at Maine Central Institute, was among those who spoke at Thursday’s meeting in favor of adopting eight-man football.
“The critical issue is numbers are down statewide. What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to save football, or trying to save 11-man football?” Leonard asked. “We need to be proactive, and I think eight-man, on some level, will do that.”
Schools with an enrollment of 350 or fewer students would be eligible for eight-man football under the football committee’s proposal, but schools with more than 350 students will be able to petition to join the new league, which could lead to dividing the league into two divisions.
Dirigo, which finished second in Class E this past season, and Telstar are among the teams likely to consider eight-man football. Gray-New Gloucester also might, but its enrollment of 532 is well over the projected eight-man threshold.
The MPA will survey member schools to gauge interest in the eight-man league. MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham said the survey will address field size and roster size recommendations. Eight-man football is usually played on a smaller field than 11-man football.
The football committee will meet again Jan. 8, when it hopes to finalize a proposal to bring to the classification committee in January or February. The proposal would go to a vote of the full MPA membership in April.
According to the National Federation of State High School Athletics, 19 states sponsored eight-man football in 2017, with a total of 847 teams and 19,662 players. The closest state with an eight-man league is New York, which introduced that format in 2017 and had six teams. Nebraska has the largest eight-man participation, with 120 teams and close to 3,000 players.
Old Orchard Beach, one of the nine schools that played in Class E this year, has already begun preparing for the shift to eight-man football, said Dean Plante, the school’s football coach and athletic director.
“We have been on the front of it for about eight months now, and we’re excited for the creativity and effort on the MPA’s part to get it rolling,” Plante said. “I think you’ll find a fair number of teams interested.”
Plante estimates that seven to 12 teams with enrollments below 350 will shift to eight-man, including many of this year’s Class E teams. But some Class E schools prefer to stick with 11-man football, including Freeport, this year’s Class E champion. With an enrollment of 494 students, Freeport would move to Class C if it sticks with 11-man football.
“We plan to go back to where we belong if everyone else stays where they belong,” Freeport athletic director Craig Sickels said. “If whatever class we’re in, a significant number of schools decide to go (to) eight-man, then we need to look at what’s best for our program.”
Plante predicted that there will be a “domino effect,” once the MPA survey is circulated, particularly among schools with enrollments greater than 350.
“The athletic directors are going to be in communication with each other. If a couple of schools go (to eight-man), then we’ll see others,” Plante said.
Another Class E program, Camden Hills, isn’t sure what it’ll do if Class E is replaced by an eight-man league. The Windjammers suspended their varsity program in 2015 at midseason, citing low participation and safety concerns, then revived their program when Class E was created. Camden Hills coach Jeremy Marks said interest in the program is growing, but the Windjammers aren’t yet ready to play in Class B, where they’d be placed based on enrollment.
If the Windjammers switch to eight-man football, Marks said he will learn the nuances and differences in the game and teach his team in hopes of playing 11-man football again as soon as possible.
“It’s a steep learning curve. I’m up to the challenge if it makes sense for our athletes,” Marks said.
Walter Polky, whose Maranacook team played in Class E this year, said more discussion is needed before the Black Bears decide whether to play in Class D next season or give eight-man football a try. Maranacook’s roster grew from 16 players in 2017 to 28 players in 2018.
“I haven’t really thought of our team as an eight-man team,” Polky said. “I don’t know how Class D is going to align next year.”
Polky said Maranacook would prefer to play 11-man football.
“I wish they’d develop Class E more, because our conference is very competitive,” Polky said. “I’m not against eight-man football. The more kids you can get out playing eight-man football, the better.”
Maine Central Institute coach Tom Bertrand told the committee that if the MPA sponsors eight-man football, the new league must have the MPA’s full support. The MPA did not recognize an official state champion in Class E, though that league had its own playoff and declared a champion.
“The unknown might make people say ‘No way,’ when really the right choice is for them to try that out,” Bertrand said. “Legitimize it and (have a state champion). That would be an encouraging thing for schools that need to make that choice.”
Greely is one of the larger schools that might be interested in eight-man football, after playing the 2018 season with a 22-man roster in Class B. Even fewer players are expected at Greely next year, so the Rangers would likely need to form a co-operative team with a nearby school if they want to continue playing 11-man football.
Sickels and Plante said any school that shifts to eight-man will need to convince community members that it’s still football.
“Eight-man is played all over the country, and you have kids in Texas playing eight-man going to (NCAA) Division I schools,” Sickels said.
John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell wondered if eight-man football’s more wide-open style of play would scare off some players.
“Are we chasing off big kids who won’t succeed in a more wide-open eight-man game?” O’Connell said. “We need to decide what eight-man football is going to be and what it’s going to solve.”
Portland Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.