Oxford Hills head coach Mark Soehren on the sideline during a game against Windham in 2017. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Mark Soehren hoped to be virtually unnoticed when he attended his first Maine Principals’ Association classification committee meetings as an observer in 2019.

The MPA was undertaking its biennial classification process for all high school sports, and with major changes expected in football, the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School varsity head football coach and science teacher wanted to see how the process worked.

Soehren expected the meetings would take place in an auditorium, but when he arrived at MPA headquarters in Augusta a couple of minutes late, he was surprised to find people gathering in a relatively small conference room for a meeting that had started right on schedule.

“I’m kind of an introvert, so I walked by the room trying to act like I was looking for the bathroom or something,” Soehren joked.

He eventually returned to the room to discover some familiar faces among the school administrators serving on the classification committee, and football coaching colleagues either serving as liaisons to the football committee or, like him, merely there to observe.

The topic was football reclassification, and for the first time the football committee was recommending the inclusion eight-man football.

Soehren was pleased with how productive the discussion was and kept his thoughts to himself until someone decided it was time to take a look at the big picture.

“There was some good dialogue and eventually one of the coaches said, ‘What are we doing? What are we trying to accomplish?’ And no one’s answering,” Soehren said. “It’s just silence and I’m, like, ‘Isn’t it fairness? Isn’t it equity?'”

Last spring, the MPA approved a reclassification that not only included a 10-team eight-man football class but also an eight-team Class A, which included Oxford Hills. It was a plan Soehren did not find fair or equitable.

Dismayed that the revised enrollment cutoffs moved Portland schools down from Class A to Class B, Soehren wanted to devise a classification system that did not use enrollment as the lone determining factor.

He spent months researching how other states determine classification, studied Maine high school football history, and tracked down state education statistics on a wide range of factors, such as free or reduced lunch participation, and vocational school enrollments. Using spreadsheets, Soehren developed a variety of models with various factors added or removed, given more or less weight, looking for other ways for the MPA to determine football classification.

Soehren emailed the spreadsheets to the MPA, expecting the organization to be dwarfed by a mountain of feedback regarding high school sports classification.

But MPA officials did take notice, and even cited Soehren’s work as inspiration for a survey its classification committee conducted of MPA member schools.

“He certainly gave a lot for that committee to think about, and for us as a state to think about,” MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson said.

Classification committee chairman Bunky Dow said the results of the survey, which a little more than two-thirds of the MPA’s 151 member schools responded to, make clear the membership doesn’t believe the current classification methods can work for football and is ready to consider at least including factors and data beyond enrollment.

How 11-man football teams in the Sun Journal’s coverage are rated in one of the models Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren created for potential football reclassification in Maine.

“We’ve always gone with enrollment,” said Dow, who is the athletic director of Mount Desert Island High School, “but I think in this case with football, we need to really take a serious look at another alternative for classifying schools.”

The MPA expects the number of eight-man football teams next fall to at least double, which will shrink some of the state’s smaller 11-man classes, particularly Class D. While that may force some restructuring of scheduling and playoff formats, officials insist they will not reclassify until the current classification cycle ends after the 2020 season.

But aside from immediate reclassification, “I think everything’s on the table right now,” Dow said, “especially with football.”

HOW OTHER STATES DO H.S. FOOTBALL

Soehren doesn’t eliminate enrollment completely from his formulas for reclassification.

“I don’t think you can ignore enrollment, but I just don’t think we can use enrollment (as the lone determining factor) anymore. It’s just not equitable,” Soehren said.

How the classes would look under one of the models Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren created for potential 11-man football reclassification in Maine.

But the leap from enrollment-based classification to methods involving or dominated by other factors shouldn’t be too daunting for Maine high school football, he said. And the impetus is still on communities and coaches to build and/or sustain competitive football programs.

“We don’t have to reinvent everything,” Soehren said.

Soehren grew up in North Dakota and started his coaching career in neighboring South Dakota. During his research, he looked at those two states, whose population is a little more than half that of Maine, as well as other smaller states such as Montana and Vermont, similar states such as New Hampshire, and larger states such as West Viriginia, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Massachusetts.

Enrollment is the lone factor in many states, but others use formulas that include other factors.

For example, Soehren’s native state, North Dakota, factors in the school system’s population of boys in grades 7-10. Other states, citing statistics that show schools from lower-income communities are at a competitive disadvantage in football, factored in percentages of students receiving free or reduced lunches to offset enrollment.

Soehren’s models give weight to free or reduced lunch rates, as well as other factors he considers advantages or disadvantages. Advantages, under Soehren’s model, include whether a school is private or participating in a co-op football program. Disadvantages are a school being a vocational/technical school or part of a multi-community school district.

For advantages, he assigned a value of 1 or 2. For disadvantages, he assigned a value of -1 or -2. When added together, Soehren ranked the teams based on their final “score,” then divided them into classes. For example, in one model, Oxford Hills ends up with a score of 11. In Soehren’s system, schools with a score of eight or above are deemed Class A.

While he researched credible sources for a lot of the numbers he uses — for example, school enrollments and free/reduced lunch percentages — Soehren noted that the values he uses in his models are generally arbitrary.

He also admitted he has some his own biases on what factors he would like to be seen given more weight. Oxford Hills has eight towns in its school district and a technical school with a lot of students who would probably look good to Soehren in shoulder pads and cleats.

“When I look around the hallways,” he said, “there are a lot of big kids in the voc/tech programs that instead of going into practice, they’re going in the woods, they’re going on their sleds, they’re going on their four-wheelers, they’re going to work … which I understand.

“There’s kids that I look at, and I’m, like, ‘Man, I don’t know who you are? How is that even possible?” he said.

Some critics of enrollment-only football classification say it doesn’t factor in other important variables such as a football program’s feeder system, infrastructure or culture. While such factors are difficult to quantify, in some models, Soehren places a value on the number of regular-season or playoff wins a program has had in the last 10 years.

“This is where I think you can get into some real discussions about things,” Soehren said “I’m under no illusion that this would be adopted. I think it’s something to look at. I’m OK with people telling me I’m all wrong.”

Along with his models, Soehren proposes some rules: If a school in a co-op arrangement has more than 10 athletes on a team, its entire school population is used in calculations, and no co-op overall enrollment can exceed the enrollment of the largest school in the state. Schools can petition up, but only one class. They can not petition down under any circumstances.

He said his models still allow the MPA and schools some wiggle room while also ending the cycle that high school football has been in for nearly a decade of requiring major restructuring at the end of each two-year classification cycle.

“There’s some flexibility with some consistency,” Soehren said. “We don’t want to get crazy every year.”

‘A LOT ON THE TABLE’

Maine high school may not want to “get crazy,” but they do seem ready to explore alternative methods of determining classification.

In the MPA’s survey, 64 of the responding schools said they would support a sports-specific method to determine classification, 34 said they would not, according to Dow.

“That’s probably very telling,” Dow said.

Schools were split almost down the middle on whether the current method of using the total school enrollment as of April 1 is still the best way to determine classification, with 51 responding “yes,” and 52 “no.” Respondents favored averaging fall and spring enrollment, 61-42.

The survey also covered a number of other classification-related questions, including the appropriate number of classes for football (eight-man included). Thirty-one preferred four classes, 52 preferred five classes and 14 preferred six. By comparison, schools were also asked about basketball, and 24 answered that the wanted four classes, 60 preferred five classes and 20 wanted six classes, according to Dow.

The classification and football committees will be meeting again later this winter. Though reclassification is off the table for 2020, the football committee, which expects to have a more definite count by then of how many schools want to move to eight-man football next fall, will have to begin restructuring eight-man and 11-man football so that schools can begin work on their fall sports schedules.

The classification committee will also look at the new eight-man numbers, the resulting ripple effect in 11-man and the results of the survey while setting the stage for the next reclassification.

“There’s a lot on the table,” Dow said.

One of the models Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren developed as a potential plan for reclassification. This one is based of wins through the 2019 season.

One of the models Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren developed as a potential plan for reclassification. This one is based of wins up to the 2018 season.

 

Comments are not available on this story.