Brandon Boyle of Portland High celebrates after breaking up a pass attempt by Deering during a Sept. 10 game. Portland won, 40-0.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Sweeping changes have been proposed in an effort to make Maine high school football more competitive and to diminish lopsided games.

The plan, unveiled Tuesday at a meeting of the Maine Principals’ Association’s Football Committee, would affect the roughly 50 teams that play the traditional 11-man version of the sport.

Schedules would be based on a ranking system that groups programs of similar strength, and would allow for more crossover games between teams in different enrollment classes.

“If you look back at the history of football in our state, it was conferences that made the schedules and with the changing dynamics of football, we realized it didn’t work,” said Fred Lower, chair of the Football Committee and the athletic director at Hampden Academy. “There were multiple lopsided games and teams going in different directions.”

Blowouts in high school football have been routine for many years. Last fall, nearly 30 percent of regular-season games were decided by 35 points or more. The average margin of victory in all games was 25.84 points, consistent with data from 2012-18.

“I think this will be better than what we just had,” said Cape Elizabeth coach Sean Green, whose team won five games by at least 45 points last fall while compiling a 10-1 record and winning the Class C championship.

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“Coaches and players on the wrong end aren’t enjoying, it but those on the winning sides don’t enjoy it either,” Green said. “I do think this allows us to even out these schedules and compete with the best.”

Cape Elizabeth High’s Nick Laughlin pushes off a tackle attempt by Winslow’s Travis Reed during the Class C state championship game on Nov. 20. Cape won the game, 53-8. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The proposal includes – for the first time – having the eight teams in Class A, the largest enrollment class, play one game against a New Hampshire school to complete a nine-game regular season. In recent years, Class A teams have played games against each of the other teams in the division and two games against Class B opponents.

The goal is eliminate a potential mismatch on the schedule, either between teams at the top and bottom of Class A, or between a Class A team and a much smaller program in Maine. The Class A teams would be matched with a New Hampshire opponent of similar strength.

“There has never been a situation where we have allowed cross-state games to count toward standings,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the principals’ association.

But Burnham supports the idea. He noted that “teams have for years scrimmaged out-of-state opponents. … There are other states that have allowed their cross-state games to count in the standings, so I don’t think it’s unique, but it would be unique for us.”

The proposals will need approval from the MPA’s general membership at its annual business meeting, scheduled for April 29 in Rockport. It is expected that the plan to have Class A teams play New Hampshire opponents will need to get approval from the MPA Management Committee before the April 29 meeting. If the New Hampshire plan is not approved, Class A teams would play an eight-game schedule with a bye week.

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Falmouth’s Lucas Dilworth is tackled by Skowhegan’s Alexander Jencks during a Sept. 24 game. Skowhegan won, 60-0. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Specific schedules were not released Tuesday. Instead, a grid of how the schedules will be constructed was forwarded to schools with 11-man teams.

For example, Class A and Class D are both eight-team leagues that will be divided into two tiers, using a ranking system based on input provided by coaches. The highest-ranked team would play games against the other three teams in its tier, and against the two highest-rated teams in the lower tier. Conversely, the lowest ranked team would play the three teams in the bottom tier and teams C and D from the top tier.

The rest of the eight-game, in-state schedule will be filled out with crossover games against teams in other enrollment classes, based on specific requests from individual schools for “must-have” and “preferred” opponents.

Schedules for other leagues would be built in a similar fashion. Teams in Class B South, B North and C North would be divided into three tiers. Class C South, a seven-team league, would not have tiers but would be ranked 1-7.

Lower said coaches’ rankings will be updated annually. “We got feedback from every single (11-man) coach,” he said. “The ranking comes directly from the coaches.”

Portland coach Jason McLeod said getting input directly from coaches is vital to the process.

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Coaches “are able to provide a first-hand perspective of the predicted strength of a team the following year, so that’s a factor that has to weight heavily in the process,” McLeod said.

“The goal is to create more parity within conference play and create some natural geographic matchups. For us, we want to keep the Battle of the Bridge against South Portland, and we want to keep the best teams in our conference. So Marshwood is on the top of the ‘must-have’ list.”

Over the past decade, several strategies have been tried to ease the number, and severity, of mismatches in high school football. Class D was reinstated in 2013 after 27 years in an attempt to help smaller schools. Reclassification based on enrollment was used, most recently after the 2018 season when traditional Class A programs Portland, Deering, Cheverus, South Portland, Windham and Massabesic were shifted to Class B. Some of those schools – notably Massabesic and Deering – requested relief from playing Class A powerhouses Thornton Academy and Bonny Eagle.

The MPA’s Football Committee made a commitment in early February to help create more competitive regular-season schedules based on program strength – rather than enrollment classification – for the state’s 11-man programs.

“I think people are excited that at least there’s a concerted effort to try to move forward with a more competitive schedule,” said Green, the Cape coach. “Whether it’s perfect, whether it’s the answer, remains to be seen. But at least we’re trying something new.”

Eight-man football was launched in 2019, in part to create more competitive games for schools struggling to keep their programs afloat. Ten teams participated during the inaugural season of eight-man football; by this fall, the league could expand to 27 teams. Teams are divided into Large and Small school divisions, based on enrollment.

The eight-man league also is working on creating more equitable schedules, said Dean Plante, the athletic director and football coach at Old Orchard Beach High.

“We’re trying to get to the point where we have very few large versus small school games, and allowing for the North versus South games makes sense, like a Mt. Ararat versus Morse,” Plante said.

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