Maine high school football is joining the 20th century. It’s walking in fashionably late, since the 20th century ended 22 years ago, but it’s making the right step. Last week, the Maine Principals’ Association finally took down the invisible force field that prevented Maine’s high school football teams from crossing the Piscataqua River.
Thursday, the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee voted to allow the eight Class A football teams to play one game each against an opponent from New Hampshire. It’s the right move for Maine, which has to be open to new ideas when it comes to improving and growing high school football. Playing out-of-state opponents is something high school teams in other states have done for decades, and makes perfect sense for Maine teams. It was a decision born of desperation by the MPA, searching for any way to get more competitive games.
Maine teams have scrimmaged out-of-state opponents for years. Now those games count.
Take, for example, Thornton Academy and Oxford Hills, the two teams that met in the Class A state championship game last fall. Thornton Academy won seven of its 11 games for more than 20 points. Only one of the Trojans’ games was decided by fewer than 10 points, a 31-23 victory over Oxford Hills in the regular season (Thornton beat the Vikings 42-27 in the state championship). Six of the Vikings 10 games were decided by 20 or more points, including a particularly brutal two-game stretch in the middle of the season that saw Oxford Hills beat Edward Little 49-0, then pummel Massabesic 77-0.
Blowouts are going to happen. That’s that nature of sports. But in Maine high school football, they seem to happen with more frequency and severity. The scheduling overhauls do not end with interstate games for Class A. In Classes B, C, and D, top tier teams will play each other, regardless of class. So you could see reigning Class B champion Marshwood take on reigning Class C champ Cape Elizabeth, for example.
The goal should be to bolster the health of football at larger schools so the MPA can realign 11-man football back into three classes, which was the standard from 1987 to 2012. Class D was reinstated in 2013, but with the growth of the eight -man football league into two divisions, four divisions of 11-man football is no longer sensitive. As it stands now – Class A for the largest schools and Class D for the smallest – each have eight teams. Assuming nothing changes between now and August, the state will have 79 high school varsity football programs next fall and will award six state championships. One in 13 high school football teams will be a Maine state champion. That’s Gold Ball overkill.
Many of the struggling programs moved into the eight-man league, where they can grow and play competitive football at the same time. Eight-man football is working. A school like Dexter can win a Gold Ball rather than get beat up by Foxcroft Academy in Class D.
The problem is, to move larger schools struggling to maintain high participation in football into a revamped, larger Class A would be tantamount to eliminating their program. Last season, seven Class B football schools had enrollments of more than 825 students. One of them, Windham, played in the Class B state championship game. Another, Portland, played in the South regional championship game. The rest had varying degrees of success, but we all know if they were handed a schedule that includes Thornton, Oxford Hills, and Bonny Eagle right now, that success would evaporate like a puddle on a sweltering August day.
Class B was never meant to be a place to relegate larger schools struggling to compete in Class A, but over the decade that’s what it’s become in the era of four classes of 11-man football.
Only so much can be done at the MPA level. Struggling high school football programs need to fix things at the local level or else none of the measures taken so far will work. The answer isn’t to tinker with with classification cut-off levels or to create an eight-man football division or tiered scheduling. Schedule relief is a bandage, not a cure. Without buy-in at the local level, it’s all window dressing, and we’ll be back here next spring trying to figure out what to do to fix Maine high school football.