Cheverus football coach Mike Vance had a roster of 31 players last season as the Stags went 5-5 in Class B South. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Football coaches in southern Maine support the decision by Cheverus High, a Class A football power as recently as 2014, to switch its program to eight-man football.

“They made a decision that was calculated and not made in haste,” said Portland Coach Jason McLeod. “To me, the alternative would be them not having a program, and I don’t think anyone in the state could say with a straight face they don’t want Cheverus playing football.”

Cheverus announced Wednesday night that it had informed the Maine Principals’ Association of its intention to play eight-man football beginning this fall. In 2019, in its first season competing in Class B, the Stags were 5-5 and advanced to the South semifinals, but they will graduate 12 players from a 31-man roster.

Cheverus is a Jesuit Catholic school with fewer than 400 students. By enrollment, the Stags could play in Class D in the current 11-man football system, but the school has consistently petitioned the MPA to compete in Class A athletics (or AA in basketball). In its final season of Class A football in 2018, Cheverus went 7-3.

Without a middle school or youth feeder program. Cheverus has struggled to field a junior varsity team for several seasons. It did not play any JV games last fall.

“This season, with just a varsity team, we hit a tipping point,” Cheverus Coach Mike Vance said in Wednesday’s press release. “We are graduating 12 seniors this year. Now we can be far more intentional about our player development. Next season, we will be able to have a JV schedule, giving our younger players the chance to play at the right level.”

Vance did not return a phone message on Thursday requesting further comment.

Bonny Eagle, the 2019 Class A champion, beat Cheverus 41-14 in a crossover game this season. Scots Coach Kevin Cooper said Cheverus competed well but was at a disadvantage, eventually wearing down.

“They only had 28, 29 kids in uniform, and that was grades 9 through 12,” Cooper said. “That makes it hard to have a varsity program.

“To be honest, I’m not surprised. Actually, I applaud Cheverus for being forward thinking and to do what’s best for their program, and it’s important that Cheverus has football. We don’t want kids saying, ‘I want the education Cheverus can offer but I don’t want to go to Cheverus because they don’t have football anymore.'”

Keeping football alive in schools struggling to maintain a safe roster size was the primary driver behind the MPA’s decision to sanction eight-man football in 2019. Ten teams played in the inaugural season. That number is expected to grow to as many as two dozen teams in 2020.

A month ago, 11 schools indicated to the MPA they are seriously considering switching from 11- to eight-man football, with three other schools viewed as potential candidates. While Cheverus was not listed as a potential eight-man school at that time, other former football powers – notably Mountain Valley of Rumford and Waterville – were viewed as likely to convert to eight-man.

The MPA football committee set a Feb. 28 deadline for schools to declare their intention of playing eight- or 11-man football. That will allow time to prepare a reclassification plan for review at the March 9 meeting of the MPA’s Classification Committee.

Cheverus won Class A titles in 2010 and 2011 and had a 34-game winning streak that extended into the 2012 playoffs. It lost in the Class A state final by three points in 2013, and lost in the North final by a point in overtime in 2014, all under the watch of legendary coach John Wolfgram, now a Cheverus assistant.

Gray-New Gloucester Coach Brian Jahna said Cheverus’ decision adds another layer of legitimacy to Maine’s eight-man movement. Gray-New Gloucester was one of the state’s original eight-man teams.

“For those arguing that eight-man is not real football, it’s going to be hard to argue with someone like John (Wolfgram),” Jahna said.

And while Jahna expects Cheverus to be an eight-man force – “We better buckle our chin straps,” he said – he believes the Stags’ decision is wise. “In my opinion, the threshold you should look at (is), can your program sustain a JV and varsity? Separately. If you can’t have two separate teams, then I think eight-man is viable regardless of your past success.”

As the athletic director and football coach at Old Orchard Beach, a school of about 250 students, Dean Plante was an early proponent of eight-man football. He said Vance, Wolfgram and Cheverus Athletic Director Amy Ashley spoke to him as they researched the possible move to eight-man football.

“All the things I heard in talking to Coach Vance and Coach Wolfgram and Amy Ashley, it kind of makes sense for them, but it’s a shock to a lot of people,” Plante said. “They hear ‘Cheverus’ and they put them in the same category with Thornton, Bonny Eagle and Scarborough, and that really hasn’t been the case for the last several years.”

The growth of eight-man football has been so rapid that the MPA’s Football Committee voted unanimously last month to recommend making it a two-class sport, with separate championships for large-school and small-school teams. Cheverus would likely be in the large-school group based on its current enrollment and Vance’s stated intention to be “an elite eight-man” program.

Expectations are that nearly a third of the state’s 77 football programs will be playing eight-man in 2020.

“There are a lot of schools with a tradition of successful football making the move,” said Thornton Academy Coach Kevin Kezal. “I think it allows them to play the game. If you’re a football coach in the state, you want as many teams to play as possible.”

But as eight-man grows, 11-man football shrinks. The MPA Football Committee proposed in January sticking to a four-class system for 11-man football, with Class A and Class D being statewide leagues, likely with eight teams each.

South Portland Coach Aaron Filieo said he has no problem with Cheverus moving to eight-man, noting the school is “unique” because of its small size and declining enrollment, lack of feeder programs, and a tuition cost of $19,500 for 2019-20, according to the school’s website.

“If you coach football at a school where you’re just waiting for kids to show up like at Cheverus, I don’t know how you can be viable in today’s football climate,” Filieo said.

But Filieo, who raised South Portland’s roster from roughly 30 to 70 players in his first season as head coach, cautioned that eight-man should not be perceived as a cure-all for larger, public schools.

“I’ll personally give Cheverus a pass because of their situation. Other schools, I would hold to a different standard,” said Filieo, who played for Wolfgram at South Portland. “Because I do believe you can build and sustain a high school football program in any community.”

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