An official signals a made extra point during a 2016 game between Messalonskee and Cony at Alumni Field in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The Maine Principals’ Association approved sweeping changes to the high school football landscape for the 2020 season, and the new alignment drew mixed reactions from coaches and athletic directors.

Although there will still be four classes comprised of traditional 11-man programs, Classes A and D — with eight and nine teams respectively — will consist of one statewide league. Classes B and C will continue to have two regional divisions. Furthermore, eight-man football will go from 10 to 26 teams in its second season.

“The goal for the MPA is to try and create competitive football,” said Cony coach B.L. Lippert, whose team remains in Class B. “The health of football is reliant on having competitive games that aren’t decided before they’re started.”

However, Maine Central Institute coach Tom Bertrand, whose team will continue to play in Class C after finishing state runner-up in the class last season, thought an opportunity for greater change was missed.

“I understand the football committee’s decision to help those schools, but I question here in the 11th hour if this was the best solution,” Bertrand said. “We’re rationalizing four classes. There was an opportunity there to absorb those (Class D) teams into C and go three classes.”

Several teams are once again on the move.

Cony football coach B.L. Lippert calls an offensive play during a scrimmage against Lawrence on Aug. 24, 2019 at Alumni Field in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Gardiner, Hampden and Westbrook will move from Class B to Class C, while Freeport, John Bapst and Poland will move from Class C to Class D. Those six schools have higher enrollments than the cutoff for their new class, but they will still be allowed to compete for playoff spots. That’s a change from past seasons, in which teams petitioning down were ineligible for the postseason.

“You can’t look at the size of the school. Look at the history of the program,” Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale head coach Dave St. Hilaire said, whose Ramblers will play in the retooled Class D. “We’ve got to get competitive games.”

Player safety and roster size factored into the decisions several schools made to play down a class or to move to eight-man football.

Westbrook petitioned to move down from B South to C South, where it will have the largest enrollment (748).

“This is just what’s best for our overall program,” said head coach Brandon Dorsett. “It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about building a program.”

Dorsett said Westbrook could have 36 players returning from last year’s 0-8 team.

“This is not to get competitive edge,” he said. “This is to build our numbers a bit and be competitive and play some football.”

New Gardiner head coach Patrick Munzing said he had conversations about moving to Class C with his coaching staff, athletic director Nate Stubbert and principal Chad Kempton. Munzing said maintaining playoff eligibility in Class C made for an easy decision.

The Tigers, who went 2-6 in B North last season, played in C South in 2017 and 2018, reaching the regional championship game in 2017.

“I don’t think we would’ve made the move if we weren’t eligible for the playoffs,” Munzing said. “We’re a much better fit in Class C. We’re only a year removed from playing there for two years. We didn’t take over Class C South, but we were competitive.”

Westbrook Athletic Director Blair Marelli also cited the playoff eligibility rule change for his school to make a move. He added that C South features perennial powers York, Wells, Leavitt and Cape Elizabeth.

“We feel we can be competitive,” he said. “But you never know until it happens.”

Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels said the move from C South to D South was best for the program. Freeport will have the largest enrollment (525) in D South.

“I think first and foremost, we want to be classified where our student-athletes can compete safely and we can support a roster size not only for varsity but the junior varsity level, too,” said Sickels. “We want to be classified where we can be competitive. We hope to move back to Class C but for now we’re where we need to be.”

Freeport went 7-2 last year, losing to eventual state champ Leavitt 48-12 in the C South semifinals. Sickels noted that 18 of the Falcons’ 23 wins over the last six years have come against teams now playing eight-man football while going 4-15 against teams in Class C, losing by an average of 38-13.

“Roster size plays a huge role in that,” he said. “We just thought it was in the best interest of the kids and the program to go to Class D.”

Lake Region and Morse both played in C South last year. They will now play eight-man football.

“At the end of the day, it was completely numbers driven,” said Lake Region Athletic Director Paul True. “I’ve been doing a lot of conversations, sign-up lists, checking with kids who hadn’t played, or who may want to play. The bottom line is we’re going to have, if we’re lucky and I tend to be optimistic, 16 to 17 returning kids and projections of maybe four freshmen. It’s really numbers driven … It just doesn’t make rational sense to start an 11-man season with a roster of maybe 20 kids.”

Lake Region went 3-5 last year, losing 42-6 to Leavitt in the quarterfinals.

Morse Athletic Director Nate Priest said last year’s 1-7 season convinced him that moving to eight-man football was essential.

“At Morse, the first and foremost thing was player safety and roster size taken,” said Priest. “Looking at last year, we had a small roster and lost a lot of players during season due to injury. We ended up really compromising ourselves and put players in who weren’t ready to play in a varsity game, several freshman not up to the standard of varsity play.”

He projected a roster size in the low 20s next fall.

“This is the best decision for Morse,” he said.

Leavitt’s DaSean Calder runs into the end zone for a touchdown while being tracked by Freeport’s Tony Casale during a Class C South semifinal game last season in Turner. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn Buy this Photo

The decision to allow schools petitioning down to be in the playoffs could have implications when the football committee and MPA discuss the next classification cycle for the 2021-22 seasons. Maine could join states that look at factors other than enrollment when determining classifications.

“It’s easier to do it by enrollment, but it doesn’t lead to the best classifications,” said Lippert, the Cony coach.

“By opening up these discussions and allowing teams to petition down, it’s opened that door,” Winthrop coach St. Hilaire added. “We need more competitive games so more kids have a better experience (playing football).”

Bertrand, the MCI coach, expressed concerns that by allowing schools to petition down a class in football and retain playoff eligibility, teams struggling to win in other sports will demand to follow suit. Bertrand added he hopes the next classification cycle will return 11-man football to three classes, which is was from 1987 through the 2012 season.

“We don’t have enough schools to support four class of (11-man) football, in my opinion,” Bertrand said. “All these teams (in Class D) can compete with us in Class C. Winthrop/Monmouth showed that against us last year (MCI beat Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale 38-19 in the 2019 regular-season opener in a crossover game in which the Ramblers led at the half.”

Now that the classes are finalized, athletic directors will meet in the coming weeks to formulate a schedule. Lippert said he expects Class B teams to have crossover games with Class A. St. Hilaire said he expects the nine Class D schools will play an eight-game regular season with each team having a bye week.

Portland Press Herald reporter Mike Lowe contributed to this story.

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