Dirigo’s Michael Packard nearly hauls in a pass in the end zone while being defended by Gray New-Gloucester’s Trent Overcash last season in Dixfield. The Cougars are back in Class D in 2019, while the Patriots are in the new eight-man football classification. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

New Lewiston coach Darren Hartley pulls no punches when asked about how much Class A has changed since the last time he coached there, with Edward Little, about a decade ago.

“To think there are eight Class A schools and 22 Class B schools, with the likes of teams like Windham not playing in Class A, or Portland or Deering, it’s a joke,” Hartley said.

Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren expressed similar frustration over the downsizing of Class A and the absence of the Portland schools. The moves were a part of the Maine Principals’ Association’s regular biennial reclassification that made significant changes to Maine’s football landscape.

Part of Soehren’s disappointment could be attributed to the Vikings not getting another crack at the Bulldogs after losing two close games to them in 2018, including the Class A North regional final in overtime, 21-14. He admitted there’s a sense that Portland abandoned Class A just as teams such as Oxford Hills were starting to reach their level of competition. But above all, losing a program of Portland’s prestige from the schedule leaves a void.

“We loved playing Portland,” he said. “It’s too bad we won’t be playing them (this year).”

Oxford Hills will be playing the elite teams in the state, though, as will Edward Little, Lewiston and Bangor. Those former Class A North schools are joined by four former A South schools, Sanford and the three schools that have won the past seven Class A state titles, Thornton Academy, Bonny Eagle and Scarborough. Those three teams are also considered overwhelming favorites to win Class A in 2019.

The winner of the past two Class B state titles, Marshwood, still ranks among the favorites in the expanded Class B. Portland, Cheverus, Deering, Windham, Massabesic and South Portland will try to contend immediately in their new class, while Kennebunk, which has been Marshwood’s biggest nemesis over the past five years, still figures to be in the mix.

Falmouth combined programs with Greely and moved to Class B North as part of the realignment. Gardiner moved up from Class C  to B and will try to challenge rival Cony, as well as last year’s three other regional semifinalists, Brunswick, Lawrence and Skowhegan. The playoff field in the region has also been expanded from six to eight teams. Mt. Blue, which lost in the first round last year, looks to return to the playoffs under new coach Scott Franzose, who previously coached at Madison.

Class C North has the same 11 teams vying for eight playoff spots. But C South welcomes back three schools, Poland, Freeport and Wells. Freeport returns after winning the state title in the short-lived Class E last year. Poland and Wells return after spending the past two years in Class D.

Wells hasn’t lost a game since it left Class C, easily winning the 2017 and 2018 state championships. The Warriors hadn’t lost in a while in Class C before they left, either. They started their current 28-game winning streak en route to winning the C state championship in 2016 and are expected to challenge for title again, along with Leavitt and York.

Poland returns to Class C believing the program under coach Spencer Emerson is in better shape than when it left the classification two years ago. The Knights finished last season 3-6 and face Wells, York and Leavitt in three of their first four games this season. But Emerson said there is no better time for his team to raise its expectations.

“We definitely have a tough schedule. But it’s not just about competing for us anymore. We feel like there are wins out there for us if we play well and do our job,” Emerson said. “It’s kind of a ‘why not us’ mentality. At some point, Wells is going to lose a game. At some point, Leavitt is not going to be dominant. At some point, things change. Ten years ago, Bangor and Cheverus were the premier programs in Maine. Wells and Leavitt are really good and they’re very well-coached. It’s one of those things that ebbs and flows and we feel like we’re projecting up.”

Leavitt is projecting up with 21 returning lettermen from a team still feeling the sting of losing to Fryeburg in last year’s regional final.

Oak Hill lost its regional final last year, too. But the Raiders’ disappointment was tempered by the fact that few expected them to face Wells in the first place. With a slew of starters returning, including one of the top players in Class D in junior QB Gavin Rawstron, Oak Hill is one of the teams expected to fill the void left by Wells.

Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale, another team with a strong returning nucleus led by a junior QB, Keegan Choate, and Lisbon also rank among the favorites. Dirigo, which lost to Freeport in the Class E title game, returns to D South to fill the Wells vacancy. But don’t underestimate how Wells’ departure will impact the outlook of the entire region, including Mountain Valley and Spruce Mountain.

Eight-man football replaces Class E as Maine’s fifth class. Whether schools consider it a Class E-like developmental option to return to 11-man football or are in eight-man for the long haul remains to be seen. But schools struggling with declining numbers (for example, last week Orono bowed out of the D North varsity schedule in 2019 for that reason) will be watching the 10-team league, which includes Gray-New Gloucester and Telstar, closely to decide if it’s a viable solution.

MPA officials have not ruled out allowing schools currently playing 11-man to switch to eight-man football next season. So enjoy the view. The landscape may change again next fall.

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