Dirigo High School quarterback Luke Lueders gets a pass off while being pressured by Ian Brennick of Mountain Valley High School.

Cougars join teams from Old Orchard, Freeport in new developmental class, bringing the statewide total to nine teams

Three high school football teams will join the Class E developmental football league this fall in what could be a precursor of even bigger changes to Maine’s gridiron landscape.
Old Orchard Beach, Freeport and Dirigo will play in Class E in 2018, forming a nine-team league with the six holdovers from the inaugural season — Boothbay Region, Camden Hills, Maranacook, Sacopee Valley, Telstar and Traip Academy.

Freeport, a Class C program, intends to be in Class E for only one season. Old Orchard Beach and Dirigo both were in Class D.

A new two-year classification cycle begins in the fall of 2019. Much still needs to be discussed, debated and ultimately decided but it is apparent the ground-breaking idea of eight-man football for the state’s smaller schools will be seriously considered for the first time.

“That is certainly a topic that will be explored by the MPA football committee,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association. “They’ve done a couple of surveys in years past but I think given where football is at across the entire state that it will be discussed in earnest.”

With overall school enrollment declining across the state, many football programs have grappled with dwindling roster size.

Class E was created before the 2017 season to provide an option for struggling programs, including four (Boothbay, Camden Hills, Sacopee and Telstar) returning to varsity competition after dropping their programs.

Class E does not play for an official MPA championship, but the league did hold a four-team playoff. Heal Point standings are kept, and there is the possibility of playing crossover games.

“We strongly considered it last year but with the strength of our senior group we didn’t think it was right for our program or the right thing for Maine football,” said Dean Plante, OOB’s varsity football coach and athletic director. “Now, we (will graduate) 16 seniors, and where they made a playoff system, as well as some of the other teams going into Class E and we’re getting an eight-game schedule … it was probably wise to go in that direction.”

Plante said he’ll wait until after reclassification is finished before he worries about where the Seagulls will play in 2019.

“We’ll see what the MPA considers. There’s a lot of possibilities (including) strong consideration of eight-man football (and) basing classification on more than just enrollment,” Plante said. “There’s a lot of work to be done before now and the next schedule.

“Eight-man football has definitely gained some traction, certainly at the MPA level. And, when you research it, it’s not as uncommon around the country as one would think. We just haven’t had it in Maine. And, it’s an exciting brand of football.”

Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels, a member of the MPA Classification Committee that oversees classification for all sports, said eight-man football hasn’t been discussed at the Classification Committee level “but it is being discussed at the conference level, among athletic directors, and among some of those smaller schools. It’s just brainstorming ideas.”
Freeport is not a likely candidate for either a long-term stay in Class E or an eight-man format. But in 2018 the Falcons project to have only 28 players, with 21 of those being freshmen and sophomores.

“That right there is the sole reason to go to Class E,” Sickels said. “We couldn’t see that team playing varsity level at Class C. Last year we had double-digit seniors and won one game.”

The numbers are much better at the middle school level, where Freeport expects to have 16 eighth-graders, 18 seventh-graders, 15 sixth-graders and 12 fifth-graders playing this fall.

Last season Old Orchard Beach and Dirigo both had 3-5 records in Class D South, with Dirigo qualifying for the playoffs. The teams faced increased competition in Class D after several traditionally strong programs moved down from Class C — notably Wells. Madison/Carrabec and Mountain Valley of Rumford.

“Now we’ll have a lot of teams that we had competed against regularly — the Boothbays, the Traips, the Dirigos — so it’s not a huge scheduling change,” Plante said.

Traip Academy forfeited six games last season, including its last five, because it did not have enough healthy players. The Rangers are on the Class E schedule for 2018. Traip Athletic Director Mike Roberge and football coach Ed McDonough could not be reached for comment.