The new high school football season is less than a week away. You’re scanning the schedule with a yellow highlighter or a red pen and taking inventory of must-see games.

Brunswick at Edward Little and Leavitt at Hampden on opening night? Wow, playoff implications right from the first open-field hit.

Oak Hill at Lisbon the next day? Route 9 bragging rights and the customary 85-degree kickoff temperature at Thompson Field. Can’t beat it.

Let’s move forward. Lawrence at Lewiston? Check. Mountain Valley at York? Can’t miss, even with two toll plazas in the way. Winthrop at Livermore Falls in September and at Jay in October? Essential.

Not to put a damper on either the fresh start or this exciting growth spurt on the Maine gridiron, but enjoy those games while ye may. This fall is likely the last time you’ll see them for the foreseeable future.

A return to four classes in Maine high school football is imminent. The state has operated under a three-class system since 1987.

The Maine Principals Association football committee met with a classification subcommittee Aug. 12 to review the results of a survey sent to member schools.

According to MPA assistant director Mike Burnham, 78 percent of football schools returned the survey. Of those, 72 percent favored a switch to four classes beginning with the 2011 season.

Schools have a chance to discuss the resulting proposal before the committees convene again and vote in mid-September.

“It’s the right thing. We know the competition in the league is still going to be fierce,” said Mt. Blue coach Gary Parlin, the voice in the wilderness who helped begin the statewide discussion about the need for realignment. “What I like is when I talk to people and they make it sound like this hasn’t been an eight-year process.”

Of course, every coach or school’s perception of reclassification is closely related to how it impacts their travel time, existing rivalries and competitive interests.

“It’s going to match our enrollment, unfortunately,” said Mountain Valley coach Jim Aylward. “It’s fun when you’re actually playing for something. We started out playing Kennebunk, Bonny Eagle, Noble, Brunswick. They’ve all (mostly) played in Class A championship games. Now we’re going to be playing (new programs) Sacopee Valley and Freeport.”

“I’m a fan a little bit of the four classes, because they had to do something to help the competition,“ said Mike Hathaway, coach of reigning Class B champion Leavitt. “I’m not a fan of playing in a league where every school is an hour away from us and we’re the smallest school in the league.”

Under the new plan, Leavitt (enrollment 612) would remain in the second division but would be considered Western Class A instead of Eastern Class B. Mountain Valley (479) would maintain its Class B identity but essentially drop into the third of the four classes.

Because some schools bristled at the thought of being known as a Class D school when they are Class C for all other sports, the MPA would label the largest schools as Class AA, followed by A, B and C.

“Nobody moves down a class,” said Burnham, who added that the MPA is not at all offended or discouraged by any school’s passionate response to the issues at hand.

“If I were still at Monmouth (where he was formerly a principal, athletic director and coach), of course I would be asking, ‘How does it affect our kids?’ You have to do that, and the committee knows that,” Burnham said.

Revolving door

Change in high school football is the general rule. The MPA reviews enrollments and league assignments every two years.

An expansion of the sport unmatched around the country has kept the committee busy in recent years. Since the mid-1990s, 19 Maine schools have launched a football program or revived a dormant one. Four more — Hermon, Washington Academy, Telstar and Monmouth — have indicated they will compete at a varsity level in 2011.

Leavitt and Oak Hill, stuck in both the geographical and school enrollment middle ground, have been the poster schools for that ever-changing landscape in the last decade.

Hathaway’s Hornets have bounced between the Campbell and Pine Tree conferences and from Western B to Eastern B, including one season in which they played a regular-season schedule in the West before participating in the East’s playoffs.

“Then the next year we said we’ll move to the East if we can stay there, and now we’re looking seven years later at moving back,” he said.

Western Class A, to be exact, where the Hornets would compete with a hodgepodge of teams that includes Gorham, a recent Class A regional champion, and Greely and Falmouth, two schools relatively new to the current Class B.

Oak Hill was reassigned from the Pine Tree Conference (Eastern Class B) to the Campbell Conference (Western Class C) just last season.

If the proposal now on the table is approved, the Raiders are headed back to Eastern B, where Maranacook would be the only school within less than a 50-minute bus ride.

“We would be playing all different teams again. Mike Haley, my defensive coordinator, is on the football committee,” said Oak Hill coach Dave Wing. “I kind of joked about it with him and said, ‘Are you the one responsible for putting us over there?’ “

“We’re always either the largest Class C school or the smallest Class B. One year in the Lobster Bowl (senior all-star game) our kids play for the East, then the next year they’re in the West, and two years later they could be back in the East.”

Numbers game

In addition to the unwieldy number of teams — 78 are scheduled to suit up next season — reclassification was deemed necessary to address the enrollment imbalance in the present Class A.

Student populations in the existing Eastern Class A run a broad spectrum from Mt. Blue (746) and Lawrence (795) to Lewiston (1,328) and Bangor (1,240).

“Scott Walker, when he was our AD, figured out a couple years ago that Bangor had more boys in its school than we had total kids in ours,” Parlin said. “It seems like every time they’ve adjusted the numbers they did it to keep Mt. Blue in Class A. One year the bottom dropped from 850 to 775. And they acted like they were doing me a favor.”

Mt. Blue still will be in the bottom half of Eastern A in terms of school size, but better matched in enrollment with longtime PTC rivals Lawrence, Cony, Skowhegan and Gardiner.

There are fewer rivals in place to spike Leavitt’s collective blood pressure under the new set-up. The Hornets’ bus will be driving southwest instead of northeast. York and Morse are the only proposed Western A schools with which Leavitt has any significant history.

And while he is confident that his program can compete with anyone in its tentative conference, Hathaway is concerned for other teams.

He cites Belfast, Camden Hills and Nokomis, struggling PTC ‘B’ rivals that would be forced to face the likes of Mt. Blue and Lawrence, and Freeport and Sacopee Valley, Class C expansion teams that would elevated to Western B and matched with Mountain Valley and Wells.

“A soccer program, a basketball program, a baseball program, those aren’t going to go away,” Hathaway said. “A football program, if you lose and lose bad and kids don’t have the interest and you don’t have the numbers, it goes away.”

On the flip side is Mountain Valley, a school that has dominated at the Class B level with three state championships and four regional titles in the last six years. Tradition and the continuity of its coaching staff has helped the program overcome the school’s steadily declining enrollment.

Up, down and over

Schools may petition up or down from their assigned class, but it’s a risky proposition. If a team moves up, it must stay for four years. Moving down is a two-year commitment, and the team would not be eligible for the playoffs.

So far, according to Burnham, Cape Elizabeth (from B to A) is the only school that has indicated it would be interested in moving up or down.

“We could (petition up), but the problem with that is that your numbers are down, and if you get a couple of kids injured you end up having a longer season than you have to,” Aylward said. “Still I’m not looking forward to playing East Shin Pond.”

The new Class C would be the division least affected by change, although there still are issues.

A reorganized West division would look more like the traditional Campbell Conference, with Oak Hill, Maranacook and the larger new schools Yarmouth, Freeport and Sacopee moving out.

Madison and Carrabec’s co-operative team would move into Class B. If Jay and Livermore Falls residents vote to consolidate their school districts in January, that unified team would outgrow Class C, as well.

With six teams in each Class AA division and a maximum of eight in Eastern C, those leagues will require crossover games with other conference to fill out their schedules.

“I only hope I don’t cross over with Calais,” said Dirigo coach Doug Gilbert. “Stearns was bad enough my first year.”

The MPA sent every school an alternative three-class arrangement for 78 teams if the four-class system is deemed unacceptable.

Regardless of how they’re affected, coaches agree that reclassification is a happy problem.

“When we sent out the survey,” Burnham said, “there was overwhelming support for a fourth class.”

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1. Comparing the current three-class setup to the proposed four-class system, is your school in favor of moving to four classes?

2. Looking at the three-class proposal, would your school remain where they were placed or would you apply “up” or “down”?

3. Looking at the four-class proposal, would your school remain where they were placed or would you apply “up” or “down”?

4. Would your school/league be willing to provide crossover games to those divisions/regions that could not fill their schedules?

Classifications and enrollments under the four-class high school football plan, to be voted upon by a Maine Principals’ Association committee in September:

Class AA (865 students and up)

North

Lewiston 1,328

Bangor 1,240

Oxford Hills 1,060

Edward Little 1,044

Brunswick 1,000

Mt. Ararat 882

Central

Scarborough 1,070

Deering 1,047

Windham 1,030

Portland 894

South Portland 865

Cheverus TBA

South

Thornton 1,288

Sanford 1,260

Bonny Eagle 1,245

Massabesic 1,126

Noble 1,014

Biddeford 883

Class A (600 to 864)

East

Cony 864

Skowhegan 844

Messalonskee 830

Lawrence 795

Hampden 753

Brewer 750

Mt. Blue 746

Nokomis 716

Rockland 692

Gardiner 672

Camden Hills 648

Belfast 625

West

Gorham 834

Kennebunk 789

Westbrook 769

Marshwood 766

Greely 693

Morse 684

Falmouth 683

Fryeburg 680

York 622

Leavitt 612

Class B (396 to 599)

East

Waterville 590

Old Town 560

Mt. Desert Island 529

Oak Hill 496

Mt. View 463

Winslow 459

Foxcroft 458

MCI 455

John Bapst 447

Maranacook 428

West

Lake Region 596

Madison/Carrabec 561

Cape Elizabeth 557

Gray-New Gloucester 527

Poland 520

Mountain Valley 479

Yarmouth 478

Wells 452

Freeport 432

Sacopee Valley 396

Class C (395 and under)

East

Hermon* 531

Washington* 417

Bucksport 386

Mattanawcook 381

Orono 334

Dexter 304

Calais 269

Stearns 200

(* new programs; will compete in lower class for 2 years)

West

Lisbon 395

Livermore Falls 327

Dirigo 316

Old Orchard Beach 292

Telstar 276

Traip 275

Winthrop 252

Boothbay 251

Jay 244

Monmouth 236


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