The question started popping up in casual conversations about high school football this summer. It’s come up virtually any time someone steered the chat into eight-man football. It’s sure to be asked well into the fall.

Why didn’t Dirigo move to eight-man football?

Dirigo’s 11-man season came to an abrupt halt this week when the school decided it could not continue the season due to low numbers and injuries that made continuing a varsity schedule unsafe. The school says it will ask the Maine Principals’ Association to play eight-man football starting next season.

The announcement has prompted countless “told ya so’s” from media, fans and observers of Maine high school football. You knew Dirigo needed to play eight-man, I knew Dirigo needed to play eight-man. It appears everyone knew except Dirigo knew it needed to play eight-man.

Well, it’s not that easy. There are a lot of other communities wrestling with the same questions about its football future that would be wise to study how Dirigo got to the point where its students are losing a season of varsity football.

It starts with Dixfield, Canton, Carthage and Peru being very proud of their school and the identity of their athletic program and its stubborn independence (the four towns withdrew from RSU 10 less than three years ago to form RSU 56).

Keep in mind that Dirigo went a decade without football. That decade coincided with the emergence of Mountain Valley High School and its football team immediately becoming a Class B power.

When varsity football returned in 2003, it was as a co-operative with Buckfield. After one season in the co-op, Dirigo set out on its own and gradually improved year-by-year under coach Doug Gilbert. Then the 2009 team, led by Nic Crutchfield, Tyler Chiasson, Spencer Ross, Alex Miele and a dedicated senior class, took Class D by storm, ran the table to an undefeated season and the Class C state title.

Since then, Dirigo has lost about 1/3 of its enrollment. As numbers declined, the Cougars remained very competitive in Class C and then D despite being out-manned by most of the rest of the league. They were the team none of the favorites wanted to face in the playoffs, especially after 2013, when they upset unbeaten Winthrop/Monmouth in the regional semifinals and then, in the regional final, lost by only two points to an Oak Hill team just beginning its runs of three straight Class D state titles.

The Cougars averaged a little less than six wins per season in their final four years in Class D before dropping down to Class E last season, due to numbers concerns, and reaching the developmental league’s championship game.

The 2009 team had 36 players on the roster, and the possibility of just a handful of injuries popping up at once kept Gilbert awake at night. Over the past couple of years, numbers were low enough to make two or three injuries a cause for concern for coach Jim Hersom. This year, with little more than half of the roster they had a decade ago, two or three injuries doomed the Cougars’ varsity season barely after it began. Now the school is hoping to at least salvage a JV season out of 2019.

There’s little doubt Hersom and Dirigo’s administration saw this outcome as at least a possibility. I’m sure they factored it into their thinking before deciding to stay with 11-man football, and it wasn’t delusional to think that they could take their chances on making it through the season.

It isn’t tough to imagine Hersom, who has put a lot of time and effort into keeping 11-man football not just afloat but competitive, wanted to give Class D another shot because he felt it was in the short- and long-term interests of the football program.

It also isn’t a stretch to think the administration, which brought a new athletic director, Jess McGreevy, into the fold after the retirement of Jeff Turnbull, didn’t get a very warm reception from parents and alumni when it brought up eight-man football as an option.

In recent years, Hersom and administrators have explored other options to stay in 11-man football, such as co-opping with other schools, and been rejected by potential partners. A merger with Mountain Valley, which makes too much sense to us outsiders but would likely be agreed to with multiple misgivings by vocal factions at both schools, probably isn’t on the immediate horizon.

So the Cougars will try to make the transition to eight-man next fall, and will be joined by a lot of other schools around the state who, hopefully, won’t be making the move a year too late.

Such a mistake has ramifications beyond the athletes who have had a varsity season taken away. Madison, Freeport and Old Town are all out a home game, 1/4 of their home schedule, and the revenue that comes from that. Dirigo’s boosters lose four games worth of concession receipts. Seven teams have a bye week they weren’t planning on, and their students have their already short season truncated.

No doubt, Dirigo still could have been less short-sighted and saved itself, its opponents and Class D South a lot of headaches if it had gone the way of Orono and called it a season during preseason. Those are serious ramifications, and they have some calling for the MPA to penalize Dirigo for causing them. Suggestions ranging from the school being forced to forego a varsity schedule to being ineligible for the playoffs next year.

With high school football at such an important crossroads in this state, it’s unlikely the MPA will want to allow a school fewer incentives to offer football and its students fewer incentives to play it. With more schools expected to embrace eight-man football next year, it’s also unlikely it would want to handicap Dirigo at the starting line.

Nor should it. Making an example of Dirigo isn’t going to help high school football stop the bleeding. Anyone who has followed Dirigo athletics for any time knows the embarrassment of the situation is enough of a reprimand. But other communities should consider it a cautionary tale. If it leads to more of them making better choices, something good will have come out of this.

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