The scope of changes coming to Maine high school football this fall seems unclear as the Maine Principals’ Association’s Football Committee meets Thursday to finalize its reclassification proposal.

At least eight schools said they intend to play eight-man football, a version of the sport played in many states but never sponsored before by the MPA.

But seven of the 20 schools that appeared in the committee’s eight-man football proposal earlier this month said they will stick with the traditional 11-man game. Presque Isle – also in the eight-man proposal – is not ready to play high school football in any form, said Mark White, the school’s athletic director.

Eight-man football has become a hot topic as many schools struggle to maintain roster sizes large enough to remain competitive and to keep players safe from injury. Participation in football decreased by 16.9 percent at Maine high schools from 2008-2017. Last season, several schools struggled to dress more than 20 players for varsity games and sub-varsity contests were routinely canceled. High school enrollments – particularly in the northern part of the state – continue to shrink.

“Everybody is clear this is a huge decision for football in our state,” said Yarmouth Athletic Director Susan Robbins, a member of the MPA Football Committee.

Yarmouth, with an expected 19 players including incoming freshmen, is among the schools committed to eight-man football in 2019. On Monday, athletic directors at Boothbay Region, Ellsworth, Maranacook, Old Orchard Beach, Telstar and Traip Academy also confirmed they will switch to the eight-man format. Sacopee Valley Athletic Director Jim Walsh could not be reached, but administrators at other schools said Sacopee plans to play eight-man.

“The reality is, what I told the committee and told the league, if (eight-man) doesn’t happen there’s a good chance Boothbay won’t have football,” said Boothbay Athletic Director Allan Crocker.

“The writing is on the wall. I would have thought a lot more northern teams would have jumped on this eight-man football.”

Robbins said she expects more schools – “potentially as many as 18” – to decide eight-man is a better option.

“There are so many that are on that verge, that borderline number, and eight-man is a great opportunity to have those programs be successful, or at least competitive with their numbers,” Robbins said.

Schools that have said they will remain 11-man are Belfast, Cape Elizabeth, Dirigo, Freeport, Houlton, Poland and Washington Academy.

Among the other four schools originally identified as eight-man teams, Greely and Mount Desert Island remain undecided. Administrators from Gray-New Gloucester and Mt. Ararat could not be reached for comment.

In the two weeks since the committee’s proposal was released, many athletic directors have questioned the decision to divide 11-man football into three classes. Craig Sickels of Freeport said at a meeting last week of the 34-school Campbell Conference, the group voted overwhelmingly in favor of four classes of 11-man football plus an eight-man league.

The working proposal for 11-man has 19 teams in Class A (760-plus students), 20 in Class B (505-759) and 20 in Class C (less than 505). There would be two divisions for eight-man football, divided by schools with enrollments above or below 350 students.

Uncertainty about the structure of the proposed 11-man football classifications has caused some potential eight-man schools to put off making a final decision.

“I need to wait until I know what the classifications will be,” said David Shapiro, the athletic director at Greely.

“If it stays three classes, then we will go eight-man,” said MDI’s Bunky Dow. “There’s talk that they might go back to four classes and then we would have to see where we’re placed.”

Not yet known is whether any schools currently slotted in the 11-man ranks will decide to switch to eight-man. Dow said at a recent Big 11 Conference meeting that Waterville and defending Class C champion Nokomis expressed they could go to eight-man if 11-man football is divided into three classes.

Eight-man football is played with two fewer linemen and one less receiver/running back on offense. Eighteen states supported eight-man teams in 2017, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“I could see eight-man growing pretty fast,” said Dean Plante, the athletic director and football coach at Old Orchard Beach, and an early eight-man advocate.

Plante questioned why some schools are clinging to 11-man football. Stearns plans to play 11-man with a student population of 168. Orono will continue to play 11-man after a season when it could not finish a game because of a lack of healthy players.

“The determining factors should be viability and sustainability,” Plante said. “Football’s a great sport to teach kids a lot of lessons. If we truly think of athletics as an extension of the classroom, let’s do all we can to make it as good an opportunity as we can.”

For Josh Frost of Ellsworth, switching to eight-man is “the best way to keep football in Ellsworth.” His school often competed last fall with less than 20 players, 10 of whom will graduate this spring.

“Ellsworth doesn’t have a rich football history. We’re only 10, 11 years in. I know some towns are struggling with making the decision because of their history but we just want to do what’s best for our students,” Frost said.

Once the Football Committee finalizes its recommendation, it will be considered by the MPA’s Classification Committee on Feb. 11.

Any changes would have to be approved by the MPA’s general membership in the spring.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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