Some Deering and Portland high school parents believe the time has come for the schools to field a combined football team, a move that would end a rivalry that stretches back more than a century and includes a storied Thanksgiving Day matchup.

Citing concerns over declining participation numbers – particularly at the youth level – the parents will get to make their case at a community meeting Thursday evening.

“To me (consolidation) just seems so obviously the right thing to do. Neither team has enough to play Class A football safely,” said Joan Fortin, whose son is a junior on the Deering team. “These are obvious and logical conversations to have.”

Tackle football participation in grades 2-8 in the Portland Youth Football League dropped from 190 in 2015 to 97 in 2018. Only 14 eighth-graders played last fall.

“If you look at the data, look at the demographics, everything trends toward (consolidation) having to happen in the future,” said Mark Green, the father of a Portland High football player. “I hate the idea of combining the schools, but at the same time I have to see the value in it.”

Thursday’s meeting, titled “Football in the City of Portland,” will be held from 6-7:30 p.m. in Room 141 of the Portland Arts & Technology High School. Principals and athletic directors from Deering and Portland are expected to attend, Deering AD Melanie Craig said.

“Right now the state of Maine is in a major identity check when it comes to football,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for us to come together and talk about what are we doing well, what do we want to do better.”

Athletic directors emphasized that the meeting is intended to address all levels of football in the city.

“It’s more of a check-in,” Craig said. “We don’t have a specific agenda for an outcome.”

Across the state, schools are struggling with how to maintain their football programs. The number of high school football players in Maine declined by 16.9 percent between 2008 and 2017.

On Tuesday, a Maine Principals’ Association panel proposed two divisions of eight-man football – a version of the sport never played at the varsity level before in Maine. Schools must inform the MPA before Jan. 25 whether they are going to play eight- or 11-man football next fall. Deering and Portland have not expressed an interest in eight-man football.

Portland High had rosters ranging from 45 to 51 players from 2015-2017. Last fall, the Bulldogs had 37 players. After graduation, they could have as few as 24 returning players next fall.

Deering’s roster has had greater fluctuation: 61 in 2015, 37 and 38 players the next two seasons, and 49 last fall in Rob Susi’s first season as head coach. The Rams could return as many as 38 players in 2019.

Fortin said her major concern is that small rosters increase the risk of injury because young, inexperienced players will be forced to compete at the varsity level.

“Ninth-graders are not ready for Class A varsity football,” Fortin said. “I get that there’s this historic rivalry and people are very sentimental about that, but the reality is football has changed, we don’t have the numbers we’ve historically had, and we don’t have the numbers to operate two Class A programs.”

Combining the programs would end the traditional Thanksgiving Day game, which has drawn smaller and smaller crowds in recent years. Portland beat Deering, 45-0, on Nov. 21 in the game’s 107th edition.

“I feel there’s people on both sides that want to see that tradition continue,” said former Deering High standout Raffaele Salamone, now a scholarship player at the University of Maine. “I think everyone who played in that game would say the same. I’d like to see it continue, but then again, if you’re going to have 25 guys on each team and get blown out every game there’s really no point in continuing with two teams.”

Deering and Portland already field co-operative teams in boys’ and girls’ ice hockey. Rob O’Leary, the athletic director at Portland High, said he welcomes Thursday’s meeting but believes now is not the time to form a co-operative football team.

“My intention of the meeting is to try to see if we can fix our feeder programs and help our feeder programs grow and get more kids out,” O’Leary said. “Whether that’s through flag football, through better communications, through maybe some of the high school coaches doing clinics. There’s been a lot of ideas thrown out, it’s just no one has sat in one room and thrown them around.”

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

filed under: