Year One of the Maine Principals’ Association’s realignment of high school football from three classes to four could not have gone better.
Rivalries were reborn, competition was closer and the state championship games were tightly contested.
“There was a lot of hard work put into this,” said Paul Bickford, the assistant principal at Oxford Hills High and chairman of the MPA’s football committee. “There’s never going to be a perfect system and we knew that.
“But overall we’re pleased with how it went. The championships put an exclamation point on it.”
Three of the four championship games went down to the final seconds: Bonny Eagle beat Cheverus 31-28 in Class A, Cony defeated Kennebunk 30-23 in Class B and Oak Hill downed Bucksport 42-35 in Class D. Even the Class C game, won by Leavitt 47-18 over Winslow, was an eight-point game heading into the fourth quarter.
“We couldn’t have scripted it any better,” said Mike Burnham, an assistant executive director at the MPA.
Especially for the fans and programs at Cony and Oak Hill. It was the Rams’ first championship in 81 years and Oak Hill’s first in 31 years. Each had dropped down a class: Cony from A to B; Oak Hill from C to D.
“Getting into Class B and playing schools our size was big for us,” said Robby Vachon, the Cony coach.
But he added, the drop to Class B wasn’t the only reason the Rams won. “I think, with last year’s group, we knew we would have a good club,” said Vachon. “They had been to the Eastern (Class A) final as juniors and I feel we could have competed (in Class A last year) and been pretty good. I can’t say that every year, but the kids made a strong commitment. We could see it coming.”
Like Vachon, Oak Hill Coach Stacen Doucette said the realignment to four classes helped, but was only one of many factors in the Raiders’ championship season.
“I can tell you this, we felt pretty good about our team last year,” he said. “We took on every week like it was a new challenge.”
REBIRTH OF RIVALRIES
From 1987-2012, the MPA operated a three-class system for high school football. As with every MPA-sanctioned sport, classification is based on high school enrollments.
Over the years, coaches and supporters sought a better way to group the schools. They wanted to balance the competition, end the lopsided scores that were popping up more frequently and get more teams involved in playoffs.
That led to realignment in 2013 to four classes, with the reinstitution of Class D. Football had four classes from 1979-86.
As schools gain or lose students, they can move up or down in classification. Schools also can request to play in a class other than the one they qualify for. Those that move down are ineligible for the playoffs.
Realignment re-established some lost rivalries, such as Cony vs. Gardiner and Kennebunk vs. York, and reset some regional boundaries.
Portland, Deering, Cheverus and Windham, for example, moved to Eastern Class A. Last year, the three Portland-based teams traveled to Bangor. This year the Rams get to make three bus trips to Portland. And that’s all right, according to Steve Vanidestine, the athletic director at Bangor, even with a cost of $700 to $800 per trip.
“We are happy to be in the league we’re in,” he said. “It’s where we should be, it’s the competition we want. The travel is no issue.
“We feel it will make our program better. We’re placed appropriately for where we want to be.”
Vanidestine said there was a time when Bangor played all the Portland schools, plus Biddeford, Sanford, Thornton Academy and Westbrook.
“Back in the day that was a bonus for our kids,” he said. “We loved to travel. It made us a team and we bonded.”
This is no different, and has the Rams playing some of the best Class A programs in the state.
“We have 1,100, 1,200 kids; we should be playing the bigger schools,” said Vanidestine. “There’s a lot less pressure to play Portland than Lawrence. I loved playing Lawrence, I love that school. But when you’ve a school of 1,200 kids playing a school of 650, you should win.”
Jim Hartman, the coach at Portland, said realignment to four classes was necessary, especially for the lower classes. He previously coached at Yarmouth, which won Class C state titles in 2010 and 2011.
“You really had to do it or you were going to maybe lose football in some of those places,” he said.
Boothbay is the second-smallest football school in the state, with an enrollment of 217. The Seahawks won back-to-back Class C state titles in 2001 and 2002 and played in the 2007 title game. Playing in Class D, said Coach Bryan Dionne, is a plus for the program.
“We work hard just to get kids out to play,” he said. “I think we were probably able to get a few more kids to play when they considered the competition was more to our size.”
Oak Hill’s Doucette said football, more than any other sport, needs to use enrollment figures for classification.
“A lot of it comes down to numbers,” he said. “You have to have numbers for depth. And you have to have quality numbers to have quality and productive practices.”
Even as the MPA has strove to bring balance to football, it recognizes there will always be some inequities.
“There are so many variables in football,” said the MPA’s Burnham. “It doesn’t matter how many ways you divide it, three or four classes, you’re always going to have the smallest school in the region playing against a much larger school.”
Bickford said the MPA can “make that gap smaller” to ensure more competitive balance among the regions.
The shift to four classes did that, as well as introducing an entire new group of players to playoff football.
“We had more teams in the playoffs,” he said. “And we were asked if this was beneficial for the kids. Yes it was. To experience that is something special.”