Gary Stevens, the Thornton Academy athletic director, says the vote Thursday on a proposal to expand Maine high school basketball to five classes will be “groundbreaking.”

“In my opinion, it’s the most important vote we’ve ever had,” he said.

Several issues will be on the agenda at the Maine Principals’ Association Spring Conference at the Samoset Resort in Rockport – but the general membership’s vote on the basketball proposal is the most anticipated. Last winter, 138 high schools fielded varsity basketball teams.

“It’s a historic day in that so many major issues are coming to a head at one time,” Stevens said. “Each school has one vote (to be made by principals or their designees). We’ll make a decision as a state with the best interests of the students in mind.”

The vote to expand to five classes is expected to be close. And even if it passes, it might not be implemented for the 2015-16 school year.

“I think it’s going to pass but I think it will be very close, maybe like 51 to 49 percent,” said Todd Sampson, the Mt. Ararat athletic director.

Said Stevens: “Five classes in basketball is going to happen. The issue is when to make it happen.”

Doran Stout, the athletic director at Erskine Academy in South China, and Steve Vanidestine, the athletic director at Bangor High, would like to see the implementation delayed a year to have more time to plan scheduling.

Gerry Durgin, an MPA associate director, said he wouldn’t be surprised if a motion comes from the floor to do just that.

“I think a majority (of schools) are going to accept it and then say, let’s wait a year to look at schedules to make it work. There’s been a lot of reaching out by different leagues talking about interleague play,” he said.

DECLINING ENROLLMENTS A FACTOR

While the push to have five classes started with the smallest schools – particularly those in northern Maine – it’s an issue that also affects large schools. Expanding to five classes has been discussed for at least a decade.

“We realized that something had to be done,” said Sampson. “You have to look at what’s best for our schools eight to 10 years down the road.”

Under the proposal, the five classes would be: Double-A (high schools with at least 825 students); A (545-824 students); B (325-544); C (121-324); and D (120 or fewer).

Declining enrollments across the state forced administrators to look at ways to level the playing field. Many schools start a season with little chance of winning a state title. This could help improve their chances, administrators say.

“Seventy percent of high schools have enrollments 500 and under,” said Durgin. “That number is just going to get larger. There are only nine schools in Class A with over 1,000 students.”

Stevens said the closing of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone changed Aroostook County athletics.

“A lot of those schools that had 300 (students) are now 100,” he said. “In the last 10 years there’s been an exodus out of the north to the south.”

A key impact of the five-class plan would be on regular-season scheduling. Some leagues would feature teams from different classes, impacting the Heal point standings that determine postseason seeding. (Another topic to be voted on Thursday is a proposal to change Heal point differential between classes from five points to two.)

“It’s going to change how leagues do business,” said Stout, the Erskine AD.

Bangor would face the biggest challenges in scheduling. The Rams’ closest basketball opponent in Double-A would be 107 miles away in Lewiston. (That class would also feature the largest of the SMAA schools in southern Maine, along with Oxford Hills and Edward Little.) Bangor would likely still play against natural rivals Hampden Academy and Brewer while perhaps picking up games with some SMAA teams.

Stevens said the SMAA will change its constitution to allow teams to play regular-season games outside its league.

“We’re prepared to offer Bangor and other teams games,” said Stevens. “We’ll have to look very carefully and purposefully in building our schedules. There could be some interesting possibilities.”

Vanidestine, the Bangor AD, is adamant about the need for regional playoffs in Double-A. When the five-class proposal was first presented, regional playoffs were planned in only the lower classes.

“If it passes without a regional playoff in Double-A, that’s totally unacceptable. Each class should have a regional.”

Vanidestine seeks a Double-A “north” regional to be played in Augusta, and a “south” regional in Portland. Double-A would have 16 boys’ teams and 17 girls’ teams (including McAuley).

DEALING WITH SCHEDULING

Adding a fifth postseason tournament would create more scheduling challenges for the MPA – and it’s yet to be determined how that would be handled. If the five-class vote passes, the tournament basketball committees from Portland, Augusta and Bangor will meet May 8 at MPA headquarters in Augusta to discuss scheduling.

“We don’t have anything set now,” said Stevens.

“Setting up the tournament we see as one of the most challenging issues. There are a lot of things to discuss, like how do we get five classes in the February tournament. We may have to use sessions we haven’t used in the past.

“I have heard from some coaches and athletic directors suggesting that the Double-A tournament go later like it used to a few years ago. Another question is where the Double-A north tournament will be.”

Other topics to be voted on Thursday include:

 Allowing the “cooperative team” designation in all MPA sports/activities. Currently some sports (such as tennis) are classified as “cooperative individual,” restricting students from playing on a team at a nearby school if their own school does not field a varsity team.

 Changing the waiting period for a school that applies up in enrollment class from four years to two. If the proposal passes, Biddeford football will move down to Class B in the fall.

“All indications are that it’s going to pass, but with a vote, nothing is ever guaranteed,” said Dennis Walton, Biddeford’s athletic director.

And if it doesn’t?

“There’s going to be a lot of scrambling by teams,” Walton said. “I would have to sit down with school officials. We’re trying to stay positive and keep our focus moving forward.”