READFIELD — It’s still a new form of the game in the grand scheme of Maine high school football history, but to Isaiah Churchill, it’s the only kind he’s known at Maranacook Community High School.

At this time three years ago, Churchill’s Maranacook Black Bears were gearing up for the inaugural season of eight-man football. At the time, there was no experience in the eight-man game upon which any Maranacook players or coaches could draw — adjustments and learning had to be done on the fly.

Three years later, the players who played eight-man football in 2019 are now seniors. For those players, the process of learning a new code of the game is long in the past; this form, not 11-man, is the norm.

“It just feels natural to us at this point,” said Churchill, one of four seniors on this year’s Maranacook team. “It’s what we’ve been playing since we got to high school. There are some rule changes, but it’s still football.”

Ahead of the first year of eight-man football, there was certainly a learning experience on the horizon for the 10 participating programs. The reduced personnel and smaller field made scheming more challenging, and the distinct mixture of teams made for road trips from Readfield to Kittery and Hiram to Ellsworth. Today, there are 27 eight-man programs in the state.

The players, head coaches Frank True of Mt. Ararat and Jordan DeMillo of Maranacook agreed, handled the changes well. For the 2019 freshmen — now seniors — who hadn’t experienced 11-man high school football, that transition was an even easier one.


“Those kids got the hang of it right away, and the players we have now, they don’t even think about eight-man vs. 11-man,” True said. “We really haven’t had to give it another thought; it’s the only kind of football they’ve played since they got here.”

The current crop of seniors are the first class to have the COVID-19 era affect all four years of their schooling. Football players lost an entire season to the virus in 2020 and had multiple games postponed in 2021. Although quarantine guidelines have loosened significantly in 2022, some players are still out with the virus as practices begin.

Maranacook senior Isaiah Churchill runs some sprints during practice Tuesday in Readfield. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Those seniors have also dealt with a Maine high school football environment that looks vastly different with each passing year. After the intriguing inaugural season, the number of eight-man teams more than doubled prior to last season, resulting in divisions and classifications that look nothing like what existed when they were freshmen.

“We had some long bus rides that first year, for sure,” said Maranacook’s Travis Lemelin, whose team played at Mt. Ararat, Sacopee Valley, Gray-New Gloucester and Yarmouth in 2019. “We still play some of those teams, but it’s crazy to see how much eight-man has changed since we started.”

Three fewer players on the field means that eight-man football teams often have to combine multiple positions into one. That’s an art that can take some time to master, but after three years, players such as Churchill have spent their entire high school playing careers learning the trade.

“When you’re an eight-man football team, your cornerback has to be just as good at linebacker as he is at cornerback,” DeMillo said. “That’s tough because you’re asking a kid to be very versatile. Thankfully, Isaiah has been good enough to start at that position since he was a freshman. That’s how versatile he is.”


For the most part, the top programs in the first eight-man season have remained elite even as the new format has grown. Mt. Ararat won the eight-man state title in 2019 and was 7-2 last season with both losses coming to juggernaut Cheverus; Maranacook went 9-1 three years ago and won the Small-School South title last year.

Maranacook seniors Isaiah Churchill, left, Chad Lancaster and Travis Lemelin take a break during practice Tuesday in Readfield. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Much of that sustained success has come on the backs of the players who are now seniors. In some cases, those players contributed directly as freshmen, and in others, they aided by competing on junior varsity teams that their programs might not have been able to field had they remained in the 11-man ranks.

“When you’re an 11-man football team with low numbers, it’s a lot harder for you to be able to put together a JV program,” True said. “JV football is huge because it gives kids a chance to develop against their peers. It’s important that we’re able to have that.”

Over the past year, football players from the class of 2023 have enjoyed something they’ve never had before at the high school level: a consistent transition from one season to the next. The road here has been bumpy, but even with all the chaos and changes, the current seniors think the eight-man format will continue its growth.

“I definitely think it’s the future, especially for smaller states like Maine,” Churchill said. “We’ve been used to it now for a while. It’s still football, and that’s really all that matters to us.”

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