There’s little debate that when it comes to girls’ soccer in Maine, the toughest league is the Western Maine Conference.
Traditionally a combination of Class B and C teams, the Western Maine Conference has been nearly omnipotent come state title time. Falmouth (eight titles), York (two) and Cape Elizabeth in 2013 have combined to win all but one Class B title since 2001. For years, Cape and Greely routinely played up in Class A and combined to win six state championships from 1994-2002.
Add in Waynflete’s current run of two straight titles and North Yarmouth Academy’s four-year title tear from 2003-07 in Class C, and the WMC has produced 19 girls’ soccer state champions in the 21st century.
Coaches say the WMC’s decision to group its traditional powers into a six-team “tier” contributes to the postseason success.
Those six teams – currently Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Greely, Kennebunk, Yarmouth and York – play home-and-away series against each of the other five teams, then four additional games to make up a 14-game regular season.
“I love it,” said Andrew Pelletier, the second-year Falmouth coach. “Thirteen of our 14 regular-season games last year were against teams that went to state tournaments.”
While Falmouth did not advance past the regional semifinal in its first season playing in the Class A tournament, Pelletier knew his team was prepared to compete.
“Every single game we played last year was a challenge,” Pelletier said. “It forces you to get better every single game.”
That’s something Scarborough Coach Mike Farley wishes he could say about the Class A SMAA schedule.
While games against the likes of defending champion Windham, Western A runner-up Thornton Academy and traditionally solid programs like Portland, Gorham and Deering will give Farley’s team a test, he knows there will be other games that won’t.
“In the Western Maine Conference, those top teams, probably 80 percent of their games are challenges where the kids have to develop,” Farley said. “For us, it’s probably 40 to 45 percent are competitive, hard-fought games.
“If I had a choice, I would have a tiered schedule.”
The SMAA also has done its share of winning state titles. Windham is the defending champion, and Scarborough won the 2010 and 2012 titles, with Gorham collecting three straight from 2005-07.
But the competitive disparity in the 16-team league can be wide.
And with each team playing all but one opponent in its 14-game schedule, lopsided results are common.
Farley suggested that while a six-team top tier might not work in the SMAA, it might be reasonable to put teams into groups of threes for home-and-away matches.
“Teams would be playing teams that are similar to them a couple more times a year and I think those games would be battles, too, no matter what level the teams are,” Farley said. “I’d rather have a couple more games like that a year instead of some of the 8-0 and 10-0 games we’ve had.”
Thornton Coach Chris Kohl said he and Farley have joked about how fun it would be to have their current talent-rich teams, and their deep junior varsity teams, “play each other 14 times.”
But he worries that a tiered schedule would inhibit mid-level teams’ growth and hinder upward mobility.
“At one point we were not one of the stronger programs,” Kohl said. “With a tiered schedule we wouldn’t have had as much chance to improve against the best competition.
“I see why the Western Maine Conference does it because they have teams from Class A to Class C.”
“I can see plusses and minuses with both systems,” said Gorham Coach Jeanne Zarilli. “I coached and taught at Waterville and in the KVAC we had home-and-away games. There’s always the Heal points issue. If you have one of those years where you don’t win any of those home-and-away games then you’re getting zero points and that means no playoffs.
“But your team would be better for the experience of playing those teams.”
Farley said another alternative the SMAA could explore would be to backload the schedule, pitting the projected top teams against each other over the final weeks of the regular season.
“We just happen to have that this year,” Farley said. “At least I get the really hard-fought games in October to have that playoff mentality.”
Craig Fannan, coach of defending Class B champion Cape Elizabeth, said he enjoys his team’s rugged WMC schedule.
“It’s good. We go to the playoffs pretty sharp,” he said.
But like other coaches, Fannan said regardless of how a schedule is shaped, the Heal point ranking systems can still muddle the playoff seedings – and the uninitiated’s brain.
“I’m from England. I’m used to three points for a win, one for a tie and nothing for a loss,” Fannan said with a laugh. “I just don’t fully understand the Heal points. I have to have my team manager tell me, ‘OK, this game is worth a lot of points.’ “