It could have ended sooner. But the Sacopee Valley High School football team, trailing 69-0 at halftime, chose to play out the second half against Old Orchard Beach three weeks ago.

No early ending. No running time to finish the game quicker. No surrender.

“I let the kids decide at halftime and they elected to keep the time the same way,” said head coach Chuck Hamaty. “The kids know we have been outmatched all year, but in their heart believe that our first win is only one game away. Isn’t this what football and life is all about?”

The final score: Old Orchard Beach 83, Sacopee Valley 0.

Should Maine have a mercy rule for high school football? Should a lopsided game go to running time or be stopped when the score reaches a certain point differential in the second half?

In 14 states, the game ends if the differential reaches a certain number, with that number varying by state. In New Hampshire, when the point spread reaches 35, a game goes to running time — the clock isn’t stopped as often as in regular play.

Sacopee Valley’s tri-captains — Mike Hunter, Zach Barrows and Sawyer Cote — said it was a very frustrating season but their passion for the sport didn’t waver.

Hunter, a senior, said joining the program four years ago was “the best decision I made.”

Nor do they regret choosing to play Old Orchard Beach for the full 48 minutes.

“There was no sense going with running time,” said Hunter, a halfback and linebacker. “It doesn’t give us any real-game situations. We want to play hard and build off it.”

Sacopee Valley was 0-8 this season, finishing a week ago with a 61-8 loss to Traip Academy. It was the Hawks’ 32nd straight loss.

It was one of many lopsided high school football games this season: Thornton Academy 67, Gorham 7 (Sept. 7); Foxcroft Academy 72, Maine Central Institute 0 (Sept. 14); Scarborough 58, Massabesic 0 (Sept. 22); and Cony 60, Skowhegan 14 (Oct. 5).

While such blowouts aren’t common and there’s no official movement to adopt a mercy rule, some are wondering whether it should be considered.

William Gayton, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Maine, said he’s not aware of any research on the psychological effect on high school athletes who play on losing teams. The research deals with youth sports.

“One of the primary causes of attrition in youth sports is when it ceases to be fun,” said Gayton.

“I’m not sure that applies to the older group. Caltech went without winning a basketball game for years. I think it reached the status that it didn’t bother them,” he said. “I would be more concerned with the physiological damage that mismatches could cause when one team has bigger and stronger players. We know confidence is a function of how well one has done in the past. I can’t imagine constantly losing would help your self-esteem.”

‘YOU’RE TAUGHT TO PLAY HARD THE ENTIRE GAME’

Lopsided scores could lead the Football Committee of the Maine Principals’ Association to consider a mercy rule, said Mike Burnham, an associate director of the association, which oversees high school sports in the state.

But it might never get to that point because many coaches feel that lopsided scores can be minimized if coaches and officials work together.

“I don’t think putting in a mercy rule is the answer,” said Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal. “I would hate to see a game stopped.”

Thornton led Gorham, 34-0, after one quarter and 61-7 after three quarters. Thornton quarterback Eric Christensen said a mercy rule would limit what teams can work on.

“During the game, we’re focusing on our offense. You’re taught to play hard the entire game,” he said.

As for the team that loses by a wide margin, Christensen said, “You definitely feel for them. You tell them to keep their chins up and to hang in there.”

Coaches whose teams get way ahead can do some things to show mercy. Besides putting in the second and third teams, most coaches will call simple running plays.

The Campbell Conference has a tiered schedule that matches schools of similar enrollments and strengths. Each team has six games within its tier and two crossover games. One of Sacopee’s crossover games was with Winslow.

“Winslow was the best team we faced all year,” said Hamaty. “It was also the closest score we had. We were down 35-0 at halftime and ended up losing 35-16. Winslow showed great skill, talent and passion for the game.

“They showed great compassion for the kids that played the game,” the coach said. “It would be nice if Maine high school football saw more of that. If a coach is good enough to score 50 points, then he’s good enough not to score 50 points.”

THE PRACTICE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

It behooves coaches to practice sensible game management when one team gets way out in front. High school football has grown in Maine over the last 10 years; the last thing anyone wants to see is schools dropping programs.

In New Hampshire, when the score differential reaches 35 points in the second half, the game officials start the clock on the ready-to-play whistle and not the snap. It’s the closest thing to running time, where the game ends more quickly with fewer stoppages of the clock.

“We’ve had the mercy rule for a few years and I like it,” said Bill Ball, the longtime head football coach and athletic director at Exeter High. “It clears up a lot of situations and tends to keep the scores down. There’s no reason to be scoring 60 to 70 points a game.

“The downside is, if you have a big squad and you want to get your second, third and fourth strings in, it cuts down on the snaps,” he said.

When the mercy rule was initiated in New Hampshire, if the losing team got closer than 35 points during the second half, the game would return to regular time. Now, once the mercy rule has started, it remains to the end of the game.

AT STRUGGLING SCHOOL, THEY WANT TO PLAY

Football officials and coaches try to keep scores from getting too far out of hand, but some situations are beyond their control.

Old Orchard Beach, which led Sacopee Valley 14-0 after 20 seconds, returned two punts for touchdowns in the first half.

The Sea Gulls ran only 12 offensive plays in the first half and scored but two touchdowns in the second half, hardly what you could consider running up the score.

They dressed only 23 players — five more than Sacopee Valley.

“We did all we could to try to keep the score down,” said Jack Trull, athletic director at Old Orchard Beach. “No one feels good about it, neither the winning team nor the losing team.”

Sacopee Valley, a Class C school with an enrollment of 392, has struggled with depth in the four seasons it has had a varsity football program.

But those who sign up want to play the game. That’s one reason Sacopee Valley decided not to have running time in the second half against Old Orchard Beach. Without enough players for full offensive and defensive teams, it’s nearly impossible for the Hawks to re-create game situations in practice.

“The only opportunity we have to line up against 11 players on the other side is during our games,” said Hamaty. “Our games are really the only time we are in a competitive situation, and it’s the best opportunity for the players to learn and grow.”

Even in such a challenging situation, Hamaty said, safety is a concern.

“We have had very small numbers and suffered a number of injuries since I took over two years ago,” he said. “My first season, we operated under running time for almost all of our games in order to protect our kids and have the opportunity to field a team for the next week’s game. I stopped our exhibition game that year when I felt that the opposing team was deliberately trying to inflict an undue physical toll on my kids.”

Barrows, one of the tri-captains, said the team could have more players if athletes from other sports signed up.

“The track team has something like 90 kids,” he said. “There are a lot of athletes who could help us, but they don’t want to play because we lose. Well, maybe if they went out, we wouldn’t lose.”

COACHES, OFFICIALS ‘TAKE IT UPON THEMSELVES’

Sacopee Valley isn’t the only struggling football program in Maine.

Lake Region, a member of the Western Class B Campbell Conference, decided to end its game with Greely on Sept. 7 when injuries decimated its squad.

“We had four players injured and three with head injuries,” said Paul True, Lake Region’s athletic director. “That left us with 17 players. Eight were freshmen. We just felt it was an unsafe situation for our kids.”

For most of the season, Lake Region had six freshmen starting. The immediate future of the program rests with the 10 freshmen on the team.

True points out that Lake Region’s opponents have been very accommodating in adjusting their games to help the Lakers out as much as they can.

Lake Region played full games the rest of the season after the Greely game, and beat Gray-New Gloucester, 13-6, a week ago to finish the season 1-7.

Veteran referee Mike Discatio of Portland said he will start the clock on the ready-to-play whistle when a game gets severely one-sided.

“That’s what our board (for Western Maine) tells us to do,” he said. “When a game is out of hand, I’ll tell the clock operator to keep a close eye on me. I’ll tell him at halftime I’m going to start the clock early in the second half. The coaches usually don’t say anything. I’ve had a few lopsided games this year. I’ve seen a lot of lopsided JV games. We’ll use running time in those games.”

While officials in 11 states end games if the score reaches a certain point differential, “nothing at the state level tells me what to do when a game becomes lopsided,” said Discatio. “The coaches and officials have to take it upon themselves to act.”

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at:

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