Cony football fans cheer during a game against Lawrence last season at Fuller Field in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Big changes are coming to Maine high school football this fall, particularly in Class A.

The Maine Principals’ Association’s Interscholastic Management Committee on Thursday unanimously voted to allow the eight Class A teams to play one game each against an New Hampshire opponent, marking the first time interstate games will count in regular-season standings.

The idea is that by playing a New Hampshire school of similar strength, Class A teams can get another game against a competitive opponent.

“The ability for those Class A schools to access New Hampshire schools of equal caliber to fill out a nine-game schedule is a big step,” said Fred Lower, the Hampden Academy athletic director and the chair of the MPA’s Football Committee.

“The Class A schools were willing to take a bye if this didn’t happen, but this is just better football. Anytime you can play games and not have to take a bye, and have those games be competitive, I think it’s good all around.”

Thursday’s vote was the final approval needed to make sweeping changes in football schedules for all enrollment classes in 11-man football, from A to D. Teams will play more interclass games this fall to create matchups between programs of similar strength.

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The goal is to create more competitive games and to reduce lopsided scores that have been plaguing the sport for the past decade.

“In football, if you get beat handily on a Friday night, it can be difficult to come back that next week,” Lower said. “Anything we can do, with scheduling or classification, to get teams to where they should be in order to be competitive and grow and survive is a positive thing in my mind.”

Harley Ouellette, left, and Jaime Salceda, of Geo Surfaces work on the installation of the turf on Oct. 13, 2022, at Cony High’s Fuller Field in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In February and March, members of the Football Committee assembled a panel to come up with a way to better schedule games in all 11-man classes. A decision was made to go with a ranking system that will help determine the games. Coaches were asked to rank the teams in their class, as well as provide a list of teams that they would want to play and a list of “must-have” matchups, in order to keep rivalry games on the schedule.

From there, the system uses what Lower called a “plug-and-play” method. The top-tier teams will play anywhere from five to seven teams ranking toward the top of the conference, while bottom-tier teams get a list of games against other lower-ranking teams. Teams are then plugged into their appropriate slots based on their ranking. To fill remaining gaps, teams will play similarly ranked opponents from other classes in crossover games that both schools listed among their preferred matchups.

“We build in those byes for our Class A teams (to play New Hampshire schools), and then we build the rest of the schedule off of that,” Lower said of making the schedules. “We have a list of opponents, but we don’t have dates plugged in yet, we don’t have home and away plugged in, and we have to do preseason. We still have a bit of work ahead of us.”

Coaches said they approve of the work done to bring balance to the sport.

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“I think it’s going to be much better for everybody,” said Marshwood Coach Alex Rotsko, whose team has won the last four Class B titles and six of the last seven. “For anybody, if you’re going to play somebody and you beat them 50-0, the winning team doesn’t get much out of it, and the losing team certainly doesn’t get anything out of it. … Time will tell, but it seems, logically, this will tighten things up.”

Cape Elizabeth Coach Sean Green, whose team won the Class C championship last fall, said he appreciated coaches being able to provide their input to make sure teams are drawing evenly matched opponents.

“We were in a number of games where they were a little lopsided. Nobody really wants to be involved in those games,” he said. “Anything to make our games more competitive is a step in the right direction in my opinion.”

Oxford Hills head coach Mark Soehren talks to his team during a timeout in a Class A semifinal against Bonny Eagle at Gouin Athletic Complex in Paris last fall. Brewster Burns/Sun Journal

Rotsko said he likes the potential for unique crossover games against unfamiliar but talented opponents.

“If we’re playing two As and a C and all the top-ranked B teams, that means we’re going to be playing some different teams. I think that’s kind of nice,” he said.

The format will create more crossover games than in years past. Class A teams played one or two Class B opponents last year; they will play three this year. Class C South has only seven teams, and six of the seven will play three crossover games against opponents from B South, C North and D.

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“You’re trying to pick teams that will be good matchups. You want teams that are about at the same level as you, or maybe a little bit better,” said Leavitt Coach Mike Hathaway. “I would love to play some of those (B North) schools. … If we could get one or two of those on our schedule, and maybe one or two from the south, we feel pretty good about that.”

Cony Coach B.L. Lippert said his preferred plan for football in the state is to go to three classes, therefore opening up the amount of opponents teams can schedule within their class, but added that this plan should make for more competitive action.

“If that’s not an option, then ranking the league and then having some preferred picks makes some sense to get the most competitive games possible,” he said. “And in our league, I think the ranking system was pretty good. … I think most people were pretty honest about where they were.”

Lower said final schedules are likely to be approved by conferences by the end of the month.

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