With the number of Maine high schools adding football continuing to grow, the Maine Principals’ Association may return to the past to ensure the sport’s future.

The MPA is exploring the possibility of adding a fourth class for football, something that hasn’t existed since 1986.

The MPA’s football and classification committees formed a sub-committee to study the issue, which has gained momentum as school enrollments shift. The sub-committee has included input from coaches and athletic directors.

“There is a pretty good probability that this could be a reality for the next classification cycle,” said Michael Poulin, the principal at Dirigo High in Dixfield and the chairman of the MPA’s football committee. “So far we’ve gotten a lot of very good feedback from the schools and conferences. We’ve tried to be transparent with the whole process.”

Any change wouldn’t happen until the 2011 season, when the next two-year classification cycle starts. Football will have three classes next fall.

Dave Kilborn, the football coach at Gorham High, likes the thought of a fourth class. His team has played in both Class B and Class A. Under the new classification, Gorham would move back down a class.

“It’s a positive thing,” said Kilborn, who took his team to state championship games in both classes. “I can’t see any downfall with having four classes. Travel might be a big thing and teams who normally play each other might not.

“But you’ll make new rivals. When we moved to Class A, we missed some of the great teams and coaches we played against in Class B. But we liked the new challenges we faced. And we’ll face them again wherever we are.”

The growing disparity in enrollments at the state’s football schools prompted the initial discussion. Currently in Class A, the enrollments range from 798 students to 1,345. In Class B, the range is from 543 to 735 and in Class C, from 230 to 517.

The new classification, which will be based on April 1, 2010 enrollment figures, will shrink those gaps.

The MPA hasn’t received the April 1 figures, so they based their preliminary proposals on the Oct. 1, 2009 enrollment figures. Under those, Class AA (an arbitrary designation right now) would consist of 17 schools with enrollments of 901 students and higher. Class A (601-900 students) would have 24 schools; Class B (426-600) would have 19 schools; Class C (425 or less) would have 18 schools.

“I think there’s a need for a fourth class,” said Bunky Dow, the athletic director at Mt. Desert Island and chairman of the classification committee. “We sent out a survey and the response was that over 80 percent want us to do another class.”

Maine had four classes until 1975. Four years later Class D resumed, only to be discontinued in 1986.

Of course, separating football into four classes based on enrollment may be the easy part. Then the MPA has to determine where to place those schools — East or West. In some cases it will be an easy decision; in others, not so.

Take the largest class, for example. Of the 17 schools designated as Class AA, only five are currently in Eastern Class A.

“We’re looking at a lot of scenarios,” said Mike Bailey, the football coach at Portland and a member of the sub-committee. “Should we have East and West? Or would it be better to have a North, Central and South? We want the coaches to have some input as to how it looks.

“Not everyone is going to get what they want. Portland High may end up playing football in Eastern Maine. I hope it doesn’t happen, but it might.”

MPA officials are also aware that some schools may want to petition up to another class. The sub-committee members are trying to take everything into account: travel (a big budget issue for many schools), rivalries (maintaining long-standing ones) and conference affiliations.

“Any time you do something like this, you’re always going to have some people whose traditional league or conference has to go by the wayside and they’re going to be joining a new league based on enrollment,” said Poulin.

“We’re trying to do what the schools want: a competitive schedule, maintaining as many league ties as possible, maintaining rivalries and travel.”

“This is about putting kids in the best environment you can,” said John Caverly, the head coach at Marshwood in South Berwick. “That’s at the heart of it. You’re going to have great coaches and great players no matter where you play. It’s a matter of finding a place where everyone has a chance to be competitive.”

Marshwood has won a state championship at every level. But its enrollment has dropped from 850 in 2004 to a projected 727 next year, according to Athletic Director Rich Buzzell. “And for us to compete against schools that have an enrollment of nearly 1,400, that’s tough,” said Buzzell.

Marshwood, Gorham, West-brook and Kennebunk are the four members of the SMAA, a Class A conference in all sports, that would be reclassified. League by-laws state that teams must play all Class A sports. Those four schools don’t want to be left out.

“We’re a charter member of the SMAA,” said Todd Sampson, the athletic director at Westbrook. “We don’t want to leave the league.”

Bill LeRoy, the athletic director at Deering and the outgoing SMAA president, said nothing has been decided.

“If this does go through, the face of the SMAA could look drastically different from what it is now,” he said. “But nothing has been established right now. We’ll see what happens. It could be a very interesting year.”

For now, everything is preliminary — the enrollment figures and possible alignments. But Mike Burnham, an executive director at the MPA, said that when he presented the projected realignment to athletic directors, “They immediately started putting ‘Es’ and ‘Ws,’ for East and West, next to the schools.”

The subcommittee will meet June 15 and hopefully have the April 1 enrollment figures from the Department of Education. That’s when the real work will begin. Then once the classes are set, the MPA will go back to coaches and athletic directors for their suggestions.

“There are going to be changes,” said Portland’s Bailey. “With all the new schools coming in, we had to re-examine things and line things up better.”

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]