Washington Academy won’t field a varsity football team again this fall, but school officials aren’t giving up on the sport yet.
The independent East Machias school, which had fielded an 11-player varsity team since 2011, canceled its planned debut in the eight-player ranks last year before the season started due to a lack of players.
Washington Academy now plans to form a subvarsity team this fall to prepare for an eventual return to varsity competition, and Raiders’ head coach Rich Oliveras said he has reached out to other Washington County high schools with an invitation for students interested in playing football to join a cooperative effort hosted and funded by Washington Academy.
Cooperative teams at the varsity level, which require Maine Principals’ Association approval, consist of players from two or more schools and have become common in many sports as student populations in most Maine high schools have been on the decline.
“In order to form a subvarsity cooperative team, it does not need approval from the MPA,” Maine Principals’ Association interscholastic executive director Mike Burnham said. “Schools can come together and do that.”
Nine cooperative varsity football teams featuring players from multiple schools are set to play this fall, including six of the 27 eight-player teams around the state.
That includes one four-school cooperative team hosted by Houlton and also drawing players from Hodgdon, Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook and Greater Houlton Christian Academy, and four teams that draw players from three schools each.
That group includes a new varsity entry from northernmost Aroostook County, the Valley Mustangs, that is open to players from Fort Kent, Madawaska and Wisdom High School of Saint Agatha.
Washington Academy hopes to use a similar model at the subvarsity level this year for interested high school football players from Washington County.
“We’re trying to build a program,” said Oliveras, also Washington Academy’s athletic administrator and assistant head of school. “We don’t have a feeder system so everyone is coming in with no experience, and hopefully with their excitement [for the sport] the kids will see what it takes to compete in high school football.”
Oliveras said restarting Washington Academy football as a cooperative subvarsity team could help address one of the bigger issues facing the program’s player count with many students from the region working summer jobs, ranging from fishing off the coast to harvesting blueberries right up until the start of classes in early September.
With MPA fall sports practices scheduled to start the third week of August, players required to complete a 10-day acclimatization period before being eligible to play in a game, and varsity schedules often beginning the weekend before Labor Day, that left Washington Academy short of players last season.
Washington Academy likely would have more scheduling flexibility as a subvarsity program early in the 2021 season, and having additional players join the squad through a successful cooperative arrangement could provide the Raiders a large enough roster to start the season until other teammates complete their summer jobs.
“We’re confident we should be able to field a JV team,” Oliveras said.
Oliveras said he periodically receives calls from parents and students from other communities in the region asking about football, as Washington Academy has been Washington County’s lone high school football team since a Calais-Woodland cooperative entry that competed in the Little Ten Conference varsity ranks for four years was suspended in 2012 because of declining participation.
Washington County is the only Maine county currently without a high school varsity football program.
Washington Academy competed as a member of the Little Ten Conference in Class C through 2012, then in Class D beginning in 2013 when the MPA added a fourth class.
The Raiders finished 0-7 in its last season of 11-player football in 2019, but in 2018 went 4-4 and advanced to the Class D North semifinals.
“We want to provide an opportunity not just for our kids, but we would provide it for kids from all of the Washington County schools that want to participate with us and WA would fully fund the program,” Oliveras said.
“We’re just hoping some of our local schools really consider this opportunity. We’re not trying to steal their kids, we’re just trying to provide an opportunity for kids to play football.”