Winslow’s Liem Fortin, left, runs against Nokomis defender Sean Calloway during a football game Monday in Newport. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

WINSLOW — In a town where football is no less a staple of life than a Big G’s sandwich or the roar of the mighty Kennebec River, Wes Littlefield’s Winslow team finds itself in a tough spot.

A program with a storied history of competitive teams, the 2-1 Black Raiders have been no different in the early stages of the 2023 season. It’s been as difficult as ever, though, to get there with injuries and illnesses weighing on a team that began August practices with 31 players and is now down to 25.

“(Our starting quarterback) got hurt with a collarbone in our exhibition against Skowhegan, and we haven’t had an 11-on-11 practice since then,” said Littlefield, Winslow’s second-year head coach. “We’re doing half-lines; sometimes we’ll do just D-line with linebackers and maybe a partial secondary. It’s tough, but we’re dealing with it.”

It’s nothing new to football coaches in Maine, with football participation taking a big hit from previous decades. Yet in Class D, there’s a determination to preserve small-school 11-man football — and it’s something that programs with healthy roster sizes and those with thinner ones think can be done.

The 2023 Maine high school football season marks the 10th since Class D was reintroduced. It was brought back in 2013 to address shifting enrollments throughout the state after it had been discontinued following the 1986 season. Upon its revival, it immediately became the state’s largest class at 22 teams.

“It was a great league,” said Oak Hill head coach Chad Stowell, then an assistant under the late Stacen Doucette. “We really became intertwined with Winthrop and Lisbon in that D South era. Poland, they’re a team we would play a lot in rec and still do. You saw a lot of new cultures and rivalries develop.”


By the end of the decade, though, things had changed. Only 15 teams competed in Class D in 2019 with Ellsworth/Sumner going to eight-man football and Orono and Dirigo forfeiting their seasons as a result of low numbers. Further departures to the eight-man game resulted in a nine-team Class D in 2021 and an eight-team league in 2022.

There are now 13 teams in the class after the Maine Principals’ Association evened out classifications to reimplement regions in Class D and Class A. At the smaller end, the result is a league that’s seen some teams drop to eight-man while others stay committed to playing traditional 11-man football.

“When we started eight-man football, we did it because we needed to do something for those programs that were dipping below the mid-to-high 20s in numbers,” said Dan O’Connell, head football coach and athletic director at John Bapst, as well as a liaison to the MPA Football Committee. “The other priority was for us to preserve small-school 11-man football, and that’s something that we feel is continuing to happen.”

Of the 13 teams competing in Class D this year, four (Wells, 48; Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale, 44; Belfast and Freeport, 41) have more than 40 players; five others (Madison/Carrabec/Valley and John Bapst, 39; Foxcroft and Poland, 38; Lisbon, 36) are above 35; two (Oak Hill, 34; Winslow, 31) are above 30; and two (Maine Central Institute, 29; Old Town, 27) are below 30.

There’s no need for concern at the top of that group, where the numbers are enough to keep 11-man football thriving. Even further down the list, keeping 11-man football is a priority. Winslow, Littlefield said, has no plans to discuss eight-man football thanks to strong youth numbers, and MCI, despite starting out the season light, has its own thriving youth system and now has a healthier roster than it did when it trotted out just 17 players against Nokomis in Week 1.

“We’ve had the (eight-man) conversations, and if we have to — if we get to that point for safety purposes — I’m sure we can have more of those conversations, but our hope is that we’re able to maintain an 11-player program, and that’s where we are right now,” said MCI head coach Tom Bertrand. “We’ve got a pretty strong group (at the youth level). … I think we’ve got 20-25 in middle school, 20-25 fifth/sixth-graders and 20-25 third/fourth-graders.”


Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale/Kents Hill’s Brock Dewar picks up Cody Cobb after a Ramblers touchdown against Freeport earlier this season in Lewiston. Huck Triggs photo

Elsewhere, co-ops have helped some of the smallest Class D schools maintain 11-man football programs. With players from Winthrop, Monmouth and Hall-Dale, the Ramblers have a young backbone that will keep their numbers healthy down the road. Madison, partnering with Carrabec and Valley, can say the same.

“I think we have some good numbers for our program; it’s pretty consistent and a good balance,” Bulldogs head coach Danny Moreshead said following his team’s Sept. 9 game against Winslow. “We’re a pretty junior-driven team. Those juniors still have another year left, and we’ll get some kids coming in from middle school, too.”

Still, coaches are quick to acknowledge that predicting numbers for future classes isn’t always the clear forecast they hope it to be. Bertrand, while confident about his program’s 11-man future, said MCI as of late hasn’t been getting the 10 incoming players a year that it used to. The Huskies have, though, had some boarding students turn out for the team.

At John Bapst, it’s even more of a challenge. Unlike other programs, Bapst has no feeder middle schools it can count on to deliver football players. That makes it difficult for O’Connell to gauge what he’s looking at in terms of incoming freshmen until practices start or, worse, once school begins.

“We feel like a good job of recruiting once we get them in the school, but it is a concern that, if we have a class that’s only two or three kids, how is that going to affect us down the road?” O’Connell said. “We’re thankful that we get a lot of kids who maybe didn’t think they were going to be a football player because that’s a huge part of our program.”

In that regard, numbers don’t always tell the full story. A team might have 45 players, but it’s possible, O’Connell points out, that many of those players aren’t ready to see the field — “You could have 35 kids on your roster, but if 19 are freshmen and 10 have never played football before, eight-man football might actually be an avenue for you,” he said.


Nokomis’ Seth Bowden (4) makes a catch for a first down as Maine Central Institute’s Connor Reynolds (7) defends earlier this season in Newport. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

There is, though, a desire among some coaches to see a few of the teams that have dropped to the eight-man ranks eventually return to the 11-man level. A few of the programs in eight-man, Foxcroft head coach Danny White said, might not have roster sizes that warrant remaining in that format.

“I’m interested to see what some of those numbers are like because, from what I understand, there’s a handful of those eight-man programs that are above 30 kids,” White said. “I think there has to be a conversation at some point about some of these eight-man teams that are in the 30s being encouraged to return to 11-man football.”

There’s also the discussion of what’s to be done with Class D. With 50 11-man football programs in the state, four 11-man classes is already stretching things rather thin, and should there be further departures to the eight-man level from Class D or elsewhere, Stowell fears 11-man’s smallest class might be on the chopping block.

“If it’s just us and four other schools, I wouldn’t think they’re going to make a five- or six-team Class D league,” Stowell said. “That means we’d probably go to C, so then what does that mean? Can we maintain competitiveness in that league? Are we going to have to look at different things? That’s when the eight-man conversation comes in or when the co-op conversation comes in.”

That’s not to say that all teams currently in Class D would necessarily struggle were the class to be eliminated. In fact, Class D teams got the best of their Class C foes last season, going 12-10 against them in crossover matchups. MCI even petitioned up to C in the 2021 classification cycle with Bertrand citing that class as a better fit for a program with declining numbers.

There’s going to be movement — there always is in a Maine high school football terrain that’s so radically different than it was when Class D was reintroduced 10 years ago. The small 11-man programs that remain, though, seem largely optimistic about their prospects of remaining so regardless of the challenges and changes to the landscape.

“All I know is that small-school 11-player football will continue to be a good, viable option whether we stick with A/B/C/D or go to A/B/C and reshuffle it,” Bertrand said. “As long as we’re playing football in Maine and keep the numbers and support the smaller programs, I think we’re doing it right.”

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