Mt. Ararat High won the inaugural eight-man football championship this fall. Next year the league is likely to expand, which will have an impact on 11-man football classes. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

What does the 2019 season tell us about the immediate future of football in Maine high schools?

Two things stand out.

• The Maine Principals’ Association’s decisions last spring to forge ahead with eight-man football and make sweeping classification changes to the state’s two largest enrollment classes had an overall positive impact.

• When the season ended, the usual stalwarts were still at the top.

Classification is always a thorny issue. When Class A was whittled from 14 teams down to the eight largest schools, it was not well received. Critics screamed there weren’t enough teams, that Portland and Deering shouldn’t be allowed to fall to Class B, and that Marshwood should be in A, even though its enrollment was well below the cutoff.

But if you were a supporter of football in South Portland, or a backer of the Massabesic Mustangs, wasn’t it more fun to be in Class B this season where your improving programs could compete on a near-weekly basis and gain confidence?

And, if you were just a fan of football, wasn’t it fun to see some of the crossover games, such as Thornton Academy’s 28-27 win against Marshwood?

Was everything perfect? Of course not. There were still games that were mismatches. Class A still had a clear demarcation between the top programs and everybody else, just as it has for decades. The championship still revolved around Thornton Academy and Bonny Eagle, which have combined to win seven of the last eight and 11 of the last 16 Class A titles.

But at least the two premier programs met in the championship game, as opposed to the recent blowouts we’ve seen between the Class A North and South finalists. That led to greater anticipation and a better game.

“I kind of liked the new schedule,” said Bonny Eagle senior Nate Ferris after Bonny Eagle’s 34-21 win. “I liked how we had an extra game in the regular season. I especially liked how it gave us the opportunity to be in a championship game against a strong team like Thornton, or a strong team like Scarborough. If this had been last year, we would have won the state championship by 50, so yeah, I like the new format.”

At the other end of the spectrum was eight-man football. The new league provided legitimate playoff aspirations for nearly all 10 teams, many who were teetering toward extinction in recent seasons.

Mt. Ararat had never won a playoff game before this season. The Eagles finished as the inaugural eight-man champions, supported by hundreds of fans at Fitzpatrick Stadium. On the other side, a nearly equal group of fans from small-school champ Old Orchard Beach were cheering the Seagulls’ first state game appearance in 1996. There’s no doubt enthusiasm swelled in those two communities.

Most observers believe at least six more schools, possibly as many as 10, will switch to eight-man for next season. If there are 16 or more teams, then eight-man would probably warrant two championship games, one for the smaller schools, another for the large schools.

It could necessitate another reshuffling of the 11-man divisions, especially in Class D. Currently there are 16 Class D teams, eight in both the North and South. While it would require some lengthy road trips, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a statewide Class D, similar to what we currently have in Class A.

The other alternative would be a return to a three-class system for 11-man. This season 66 teams played 11-man, including Dirigo which had to forfeit its final seven games. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that there could easily be fewer than 60 11-man teams in 2020.

Lisbon quarterback Seth Leeman hoists the Gold Ball after the Greyhounds beat Bucksport 38-8 to win the Class D state championship on Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

For Seth Leeman, the quarterback at Class D champ Lisbon/St. Dominic, keeping Class D would be the right thing to do.

“This class, it might be a low class, but there’s a lot of great teams, a lot of great players. I feel like we fit right in with that category,” Leeman said after the Greyhounds beat Bucksport to win their first state title since 2006.

The status of elite teams really didn’t change much this season. Defending Class A champion Thornton took an 11-0 record and 22-game win streak into Saturday’s Class A championship against Bonny Eagle. Marshwood won its third straight Class B title. Both Marshwood and B North winner Brunswick were in their fifth championship game in six years.

That’s not an indictment of the classification system. Rather, Bonny Eagle, Thornton, Marshwood and Brunswick are prime examples that football programs in Maine can still resonate in a community. The same goes for this year’s Class C champion Leavitt, along with Wells, MCI, Kennebunk, and Winslow to name a few.

And the secrets to success aren’t really secrets at all.

It starts with consistent, quality coaching. The programs that win year after year have a level of expectation that starts at the top. When everyone knows the expectations, players will meet them, (most) parents will accept them, and the administration can support them.

When one of those top programs does suffer a tough season, they don’t panic. They recommit. Look no further than Bonny Eagle for an example. The Scots were coming off a 5-4 injury-plagued season that ended with four straight losses.

So, don’t ask the top teams to significantly regress in 2020. Excellence should be emulated, not penalized.

South Portland and Class C York, which both saw six-win improvements, showed turnarounds can happen rapidly.

It’s time for a few more schools to make the commitment – whether in 11-man or eight-man – to raise their games.


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