SOUTH HIRAM — Sacopee Valley tight end Travis Weeks contemplated what it will feel like to win a varsity football game for the first time in school history.

“It’s going to mean a lot,” he said. “Because I know what our program’s been through.”

This fall, Sacopee Valley will join the new six-team Class E, created to level the playing field for struggling football programs.

Sacopee is one of the four high schools in Class E that dropped its varsity team in recent years because of low participation and an inability to remain competitive on the field. Class E will allow those programs to regain varsity status and play an eight-game schedule, mostly against each other.

For Sacopee seniors like Weeks, Randy Gonyea and Ben Thurlow, simply playing in a varsity game will be a triumph.

They were incoming freshmen in the summer of 2014 when the school realized it wouldn’t have enough players to continue playing a varsity schedule. The Hawks had an 0-40 record from 2009-13 – the only five years of the varsity program – and were outscored 243-39 in their final season.

Sacopee played a junior varsity schedule in 2014, with the roster dipping to 13 healthy players by the end of the season.

“We knew at one point we would all be leading the team, one way or another,” said Thurlow, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound offensive lineman and nose guard. “None of us at that time knew what exactly would come but we were hoping for the best for the future for this program and our school.

“We just talked to our friends … and got more people out.”

By 2015, 30 players were on the junior varsity team. Assistant principal Jim Walsh, a former head coach at Old Town, took over as the coach. The team went 7-1. In 2016, the group had another solid JV campaign, facing off against some Class A schools and holding its own.

“We fought and clawed our way back to this point to become a Class E varsity,” Thurlow said. “And I’m happy about that.”

Participation in Maine high school football dropped by 9.6 percent in the decade between 2006 and 2015, largely the result of an overall decline in the state’s high school population of 12.9 percent. Increased awareness of the risk of head injuries also contributed to the participation decline.

As a result, more schools struggled to field rosters large enough to conduct 11-on-11 practices – or to compete safely as players succumbed to injuries.

When Boothbay folded its varsity team on the eve of the 2016 season, it became the fifth Maine school in as many years to drop varsity football. Calais-Woodland (in 2012), Sacopee Valley (2014), and Telstar and Camden Hills (both 2015) previously eliminated their varsity teams. Each situation was different, but it all boiled down to not having enough players.

All of those schools continued to play at a sub-varsity level, keeping the programs alive.

Recognizing that it needed to do something to help struggling programs, the Maine Principals’ Association added Class E for the 2017 season.

“It’s to give those schools that are trying to rebuild an opportunity to play and put together a competitive schedule,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the MPA.

Sacopee Valley will join Camden Hills, Boothbay, and Telstar – along with former Class D teams Traip Academy and Maranacook – in the new division.

“Class E was a savior, to be honest with you,” said Mike Roberge, Traip’s athletic director.

Traip has averaged about 20 players for nearly two decades but always had a core group of seniors. Roberge said he knew the 2017 team would be very young. Traip has 17 players, with two seniors and one junior. Two of the freshmen are girls.

“I couldn’t have put our current team with the numbers we have and our youth against a team like Wells,” Roberge said of the 2016 Class C state champs, who are moving to Class D South this season. “It wouldn’t have been good for Wells and it would not be good for us.”

Roberge said he also has had conversations with the MPA and other Class E schools to let them know Traip will have to make a week-to-week determination on the fitness of its team to compete in a game. As of now, the plan is to play the season opener at Sacopee Valley.

The MPA determined Class E teams won’t participate in playoffs and compete for a championship. But standings will be kept, and they are allowed to play opponents from other classes. Sacopee has two games against Class D squads, including a home game against Lisbon, the defending Class D South champ. Traip and Telstar will each play a game against Washington Academy, which was 0-9 last season in Class D North.

Based on preseason numbers, none of the Class E teams have seen an immediate boost in roster size. At a recent practice, Sacopee Valley dressed 24 players. Walsh said he expects to have closer to 30 players after school begins, a number consistent with the JV roster the past two years.

Jeremy Marks, the first-year head coach at Camden Hills, figures he’ll have 25 to 34 players. Maranacook will have 22 to 24.

“That will be enough in Class E,” said Maranacook Athletic Director Al MacGregor. “The numbers we’re receiving from the other schools are all about the same. This is a good step, or a lot of these teams probably would have folded.”

Burnham said the state organization does not set “a hard and fast rule on participation numbers. The recommendation is when you get below 20, that would be a red flag. At that point, a number of kids are playing both offense and defense, and on special teams.”

As Roberge noted, the age and experience of the players is a significant factor.

When Camden Hills canceled its varsity season after the third game in 2015, a major consideration was that 12 of the 23 active players were freshmen.

“For us, right now, Class E makes sense,” Marks said. “We’re predominantly underclassmen, mostly freshmen and sophomores. Most of the upperclassmen have not returned to the program. This year will give us another year of growth but a little bit more legitimacy. We’re going to be playing teams that are exactly like us.”

Declining enrollments also led to significant changes when the MPA concluded its biennial reclassification this spring. Five former Class B teams have dropped to Class C, and six former Class C teams are now in Class D, which is for schools with fewer than 470 students. On paper, the changes appear to have created deeper, stronger leagues in C and D, particularly in the South.

But the potential long-term effect could be that a new crop of small schools has been placed at a competitive disadvantage.

“Yeah, I’m very concerned. The whole plan behind creating Class E was to protect the smaller schools,” said Dirigo Coach Jim Hersom, who had 25 players show up for preseason practices as the Cougars prepare for play in Class D South. “We’re a school of 230 students, and now we’re going against schools with 450 students, and we’re at a disadvantage.

“The only school comparable to us is Old Orchard Beach, and most are 400-plus. We’ve been competitive and the kids have been great, and they’ll never back down from a challenge, but it’s quite a challenge.”

In an effort to create greater competitive balance for all teams, up to two crossover games have been added in B, C and D.

“Classification, the intent behind all of it, including the E class, was to allow for that competitive balance,” Burnham said.

Before the season, coaches rated their own leagues in order to schedule games with similar opponents from the other geographic division, or in a few instances, against a traditional rival in a different class.

For example, Kennebunk, the consensus pick to defend its Class B South title, will play Messalonskee and defending state champ Brunswick, both Class B North teams.

“Crossover schedules? I’m not a big fan of it personally, but I understand it completely,” said Kennebunk Coach Joe Rafferty, entering his 39th season. “You’re trying to make a competitive schedule, and first you look at, can you do it geographically? And if you can’t, how do you do it?

“We’ve done it before. (We’ve) played at Hampden Academy, Old Town, Winslow. We’ve done a lot of crossovers over the years. Just making them realistic is important.”

The Class E teams aren’t worried about scheduling. They’re just happy to be playing in what should be a far more competitive environment.

Walsh, the Sacopee Valley coach, believes the foundations for football success are in place at his school: a supportive administration, an active booster club, a youth football program, and three assistant coaches who work in the school system. The game field is well maintained, with lights, permanent bleachers and a concession stand.

“The whole community loves us. Every Friday night, you’ll see about 500 people at our games,” said Gonyea, a 5-11, 265-pound senior center and defensive tackle. “It’s very important to our community as a whole.”

Now it’s up to the players and coaches to take the next steps.

“We know we’re going to win. I feel it coming,” Thurlow said. “First varsity win, coming our senior year.

“It’s going to be so special for us.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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