Significant changes to three high school sports have cleared a Maine Principals’ Association committee and are expected to move closer to ratification on Tuesday.
The group’s management committee will consider plans for volleyball and lacrosse to expand from two to three classes, and for football to add a fifth class. If approved with no objections from member schools, the MPA’s full membership will vote April 27, with changes taking effect for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.
Declining enrollments across the state continue to be a significant factor in classification. The state’s high school population declined by 12.9 percent between 2006 and 2015, with northern Maine schools hit hardest. Two years ago the changing demographic was the main reason for expanding basketball to five classes.
Currently, 109 of the 153 MPA schools have fewer than 500 students, with 79 having fewer than 300.
The classification committee sets enrollment limits for each class.
“Declining enrollments are majorly impacting where those numbers fall,” said Gerry Durgin, assistant executive director of the MPA.
Here are some of the major proposals:
The push to add a class comes from the sport’s expansion. Volleyball has grown from 25 to 35 teams the past two seasons and added at least one new team each year from 2011 to 2016.
Volleyball has had two statewide classes: Class A, for schools with 525 or more students, had 22 teams in 2016. Class B had 13.
The proposal creates a 12-team Class A, a 13-team Class B and a 10-team Class C – which would have nine Down East schools plus North Yarmouth Academy. If Lee Academy fields a team, the class would grow to 11.
“Volleyball as a sport in Maine originated Down East,” Durgin said. “Three classes allows the Down East schools to have their own class and their own championship.”
NYA Athletic Director Jack Hardy, the volleyball committee chair, said it was important to maintain a competitive environment for Down East schools while anticipating continued growth of the sport. He said three schools are playing at a club level.
“We want those very small schools to have some form of an opportunity to get to a state championship or at the least, experience tournament play,” Hardy said.
Lacrosse, which became an MPA sport in 1998, saw rapid growth in its first 12 years before stabilizing for a couple of seasons. Since 2011, the sport has added five girls’ and two boys’ teams.
Yarmouth Principal Eric Klein, the lacrosse committee chair, said his committee anticipates another wave of new teams from communities where the sport is blossoming at the youth level.
“It’s all a question of timing. When are we ready for expansion?” Klein said. “The purpose of the three-class system is to deal with expansion and also with the inequity of what is, essentially, two tiers of lacrosse. We have some programs at an exceptionally high competitive level and others that are not as strong.”
The sport now has two classes divided into North and South for 44 boys’ teams and 45 girls’ teams. Class A is for schools with 750 or more students.
The proposed system would continue to have Class A (800-plus students) divided into North and South. Class B (600-799) and a new Class C would be statewide.
Perennially strong programs like Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth, which have fewer than 600 students, plan to petition to remain in Class B, Klein said.
The 12-team Class C would accommodate schools with fewer than 600 students and new or developing programs.
Class C would include Erskine Academy, Lincoln Academy, Winslow, Oak Hill, St. Dominic and the new MCI-Nokomis co-op, with southern Maine schools Freeport, Fryeburg Academy, Lake Region, North Yarmouth Academy, Waynflete and Wells.
The football committee’s proposed five-class system includes a six-team Class E to help resuscitate four programs – Boothbay Region, Camden Hills, Sacopee Valley and Telstar – that have dropped varsity football since 2013. Maranacook and Traip Academy would complete Class E.
The committee decided Class E would not compete for a championship, in large part because Camden Hills has a Class B-sized enrollment and the others have Class D sizes. That decision caused Old Orchard Beach, placed in Class E, to ask to return to Class D.
The proposal also shifts enrollment figures. While Class A would remain unchanged, several teams would move from Class B to C and others from Class C to Class D.
“The football committee did a lot of work on that,” Durgin said.
Typically, co-operative teams – which can comprise two or more schools – are formed because individual schools lack enough athletes to be competitive in a sport. The total enrollment of schools in a co-op is added together to determine their class.
But when enrollments are put together, a co-op team could end up in a larger class where competitive inequities are magnified.
A new proposal would count the host school’s enrollment and a percentage of the secondary school’s enrollment equal to the percentage of athletes from that school.
For instance: Host School A has 500 students. Co-operative School B has 450 and contributes 10 of the 50 athletes on a team, or 20 percent of the team. In the proposed system, Team A-B would be considered to have an enrollment of 590 (500 from the host school plus 20 percent of 450) as opposed to 950 under the current system.
As proposed, basketball will continue to be a five-class system with each class divided into North and South. The cutoff for Class AA, the largest enrollment class, has been lowered from 825 to 800 students.
“We did that pretty much to keep it just the way it is,” Durgin said.
South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston, a member of the classification committee, said there was discussion about increasing the number of teams in Class AA.
“But then that causes the discussion of how low do you go for enrollment?” Livingston said.
Class AA’s largest school, Thornton Academy (1,422 students in 2016-17), has nearly 600 more students than the class’s smallest public school, Gorham (824).
In the wake of decreased attendance at AA tournament games and the AA boys’ final between Portland and South Portland held in Augusta, critics of the format have suggested changes. Those include: making it a statewide division, maintaining North and South regions but playing all neutral-site games in Portland, and moving the AA tournament to a later date.
The classification committee does not recommend tournament procedure, Durgin said.
Livingston said all of the AA schools were invited to a meeting Thursday to discuss potential changes and concerns. The MPA basketball committee is scheduled to meet March 31.
Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or: