Rivals Portland and Deering will be moving from Class A to Class B in the latest proposed changes to high school football by the Maine Principals’ Association. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Maine Principals’ Association has changed course in its plans for high school football this fall by sharply reducing the number of teams in Class A.

Only the eight largest schools in Maine, with enrollments over 950 students, will be categorized as Class A. There will not be separate geographic regions.

In recent years, Class A consisted of 14 teams divided into North and South regions. And as recently as a month ago, the MPA’s classification committee approved a plan to expand Class A to 16 teams.

The eight Class A teams for 2019 (with current enrollments) are: Thornton Academy (1,476), Lewiston (1,420), Bangor (1,202), Bonny Eagle (1,094), Oxford Hills/Buckfield (1,063), Edward Little (998), Sanford (982) and Scarborough (973).

“I don’t think it’s good for Sanford or football in the state,” said Sanford Athletic Director Gordie Salls. “I don’t want to be critical because a lot of people put in a lot of work on this, but if you want competitive schedules you need more teams, not less teams.”

Class B will grow from 17 teams to 22. Rivals Deering and Portland, both longtime Class A programs, will be in Class B South. South Portland, Massabesic, Windham and Cheverus are the other schools expected to move from Class A to B.

“That’s right about where we belong,” said Rob O’Leary, Portland High’s athletic director. “With the teams in our league, we’re very competitive with them. Portland and Deering being in the same league is a bonus as well.”

The plan for eight Class A teams was approved unanimously by both the MPA football and classification committees in a special meeting Monday, said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham. The plan will go before the full MPA membership for final approval at an April 25 meeting.

The change in plans came after five schools appealed the classification committee’s proposal in early March regarding enrollment cutoffs in all four divisions of 11-man football.

Massabesic, Noble and Gorham appealed to play in Class B. Massabesic, with 927 students, has been a Class A program that struggled in recent seasons. Noble and Gorham were previously in Class B but had been targeted to move up to Class A this fall. They won five and four games, respectively, in 2018, after years of struggles to be competitive. Noble totaled 16 wins in 11 seasons from 2007-17. Gorham had one win from 2012 to 2016.

“At this point in time, we felt (Class B) would be a better fit for our program,” said Noble Athletic Director Aaron Watson. “We feel it’s the best fit in terms of participation, putting forth a good product for our kids, making sure our kids are safe, as well as putting together a good schedule.”

Burnham said going with eight teams in Class A seemed “like the natural break, based on the appeals that we had heard.”

Nokomis and Morse, which had been moved up to Class B, appealed to return to Class C. Those appeals were quickly granted Monday, Burnham said.

Classification of football has become a thorny problem, said Lewiston Athletic Director Jason Fuller. Participation numbers in Maine dropped 16.9 percent from 2008-17. Concerns over injuries and concussions have “steered” some away, said Fuller, while several schools that added football in the 2000s found it difficult to maintain a program.

“I just think the landscape of football as a whole has changed,” Fuller said. “I do think the number of kids who participate has dropped significantly across the state, and that has played a role. Where some are dropping in numbers, other programs are exploding. The gaps have been bigger than ever.”

The average margin of victory in 311 regular-season games was 24.96 points in 2018, consistent with records kept by the Press Herald since 2012 and an increase over 2017.

Fuller was part of a group that suggested during the process that Class A would benefit from an 18-team division, separated into three six-team pods for scheduling purposes. Salls said that was the best arrangement he had seen.

Fuller said he also recognizes that while more teams in Class A would increase scheduling flexibility at that level, it could create problems for smaller schools.

“When you pull teams up to A, then you may end up having to pull teams from C that aren’t ready for Class B,” Fuller said. “I’m not sure the football and classification committees had much choice when listing all the factors that played into this.”

Since Class A won’t have separate regional tournaments, it’s expected teams will play a nine-game schedule. The other classes will stick with an eight-game regular season. It will be up to the Class A and B schools to work out crossover games.

O’Leary said Portland has offered to play defending state champion Thornton Academy. Thornton beat Portland, 49-14, in last fall’s Class A championship game.

“We’ll play them. I don’t know who’s going to get them, maybe us, maybe Marshwood, maybe Windham. I know we’ll get one of the three for sure,” O’Leary said, referring to the Thornton-Bonny Eagle-Scarborough troika that has combined to win the last seven state titles.

Class B will be divided into two 11-team divisions for schools with enrollments between 600-949. Class B South will consist entirely of SMAA schools. Massabesic, Gorham and Noble will join Deering, South Portland, defending Class B state champion Marshwood, Portland, Biddeford, Westbrook, Kennebunk and probably Cheverus.

Cheverus, a private school with an enrollment of 394 students, has traditionally petitioned to play in the state’s largest division. Burnham said the MPA anticipates Cheverus will choose to play in Class B. Cheverus Athletic Director Amy Ashley did not return a message seeking comment.

Class B North will have the new Falmouth/Greely co-operative team and Windham, two SMAA members, joining the Pine Tree Conference teams that previously played in Class B.

Class C, for schools between 420-599 in enrollment, will have 11 teams in the North and nine in the South. Two-time defending Class D champion Wells returns to Class C, where it won the 2016 state title. Wells, with 422 students, is now the smallest Class C school.

Class D, for the smallest schools choosing to play 11-man football, will have nine teams in the North and eight in the South. The South will include Camden Hills, a Class B size school that requested to play in the smallest division and won’t be eligible to participate in the playoffs.

The new eight-man football division remains as previously proposed, with 10 teams split into divisions for larger and smaller schools.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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