Maine’s small class for 11-player football teams is barely 50 percent of what it was just two years ago.
Class D, for schools with less than 400 students, once included the North and South Divisions which had nearly 20 teams from two of the state’s well-known leagues, the LTC and the Campbell Conference. Today, the Small Schools Division is an amalgamation of just nine schools statewide, including Maine’s six smaller 11-player programs.
As more schools flock to the growing ranks of eight-player football across the state, coaches fear that 11-player Class D football will fade away if the trend continues. And if the division were to be disbanded, some coaches fear it will hamper teams’ ability to develop their squads and fight to join the ranks of the 11 players.
The state’s eight-player football community has grown from its original 10 schools in 2019 to 25 this fall, and the belief among some remaining Class D coaches is that more schools will do the same if the size membership continues to decline over a decade.
“I’m first and foremost about preserving tackle football,” John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell said. “But ultimately, I have the impression that there will continue to be movement. I believe some of those eight-man schools will go back to eleven, and I also think there will be others in 11 now that will go to eight.
The number of high school football players in Maine fell 21 percent, from 4,029 to 3,213, over the 10 seasons between 2009 and 2018, according to the annual participation survey of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
That tally has not been done in the past two school years because of COVID-19, but these numbers in Pine Tree State reflect the national trend. Since reaching an all-time high of 1,112,303 players in 2008, participation in 11-player football has declined every year until 2018, with the exception of the 2013-14 school year.
Seven of the nine Class D North teams in 2019 now play eight-player football, leaving only Bucksport and Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft who will be joined this fall by Lisbon-St. Dominic, Oak Hill of Wales, Winthrop-Monmouth-Hall-Dale and Madison-Carrabec-Valley from Class D South.
Joining this contingent are three Class C schools – Freeport, John Bapst from Bangor and Poland – which have moved to Class D under a new rule from the Maine Principals Association that allows teams to play at a level lower than the class dictated by registration and still be eligible for the playoffs in order to preserve these programs.
Competition in the new Class D class is expected to be fierce this fall, as its current members have combined to win four state championships and nine regional titles since the reestablishment of fourth class in 2013. Lisbon-St. Dominic beat Bucksport in the 2019 national final.
“It’s really crazy to think that the only teams that we play this year that we have played a lot in the past are John Bapst and Bucksport,” said Foxcroft Academy coach Danny White. “It’s like you almost jump into state championship games right off the bat.”
It is not known whether more 11-player tackle football teams will transition to eight-player football, as is the number of additional teams that are expected to make this change before the Maine Principals’ Association football committee does. plans to eliminate Class D and leave only three classes of 11-player Football – as was the case before 2013.
Currently, the smallest class in the Maine high school football ranks is Class A, which is home to the state’s largest football schools.
“The fact that there is only one league in Class D shows where the numbers are going,” Bucksport coach Joel Sankey said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. “
O’Connell is one of Maine’s biggest supporters of 11-player football, but he recognizes the decline in high school enrollment in the state and how it affects all sports, including football.
“As far as the eight players are concerned, I was a big supporter and I am still for the ability of a team with a low number to continue playing tackle football,” he said. “I am also convinced that if you can get back to 11 men, you should try to do it.”
O’Connell uses what he calls a “rule of three” as a primary step in determining whether a football program should compete with 11 or eight players, particularly if a program has enough players for three full teams. .
“If you have 33 or more kids, I think you should play 11-player football, and if you have 24 or less, I think you’re an eight-man school,” he said. For programs with 25 to 32 kids, that’s where he said you need to assess your roster, program culture, coaching history, and community support.
Sankey said Bucksport is considering switching to eight-player football before returning to Class D this fall with a roster of 34 players.
“Right now, the future of our program looks to be heading in the right direction when it comes to numbers, but we can’t afford to lose too many,” White said. “We have to keep working to keep the kids involved in the program. “
Another reason why support persists for the continuation of Class D football is to provide programs that have upgraded to the eight-player version with the option of returning to the 11-player competition if they are able to reinvigorate their numbers. of participants.
“I think the work that the Maine Principals’ Association and the programming committee and the schools involved did to preserve 11-player football in small schools was very important work,” said O’Connell, whose list of John Bapst counts in his thirties. this season. “I hope we can continue to maintain this.”