Jan. 11—High school football in Maine will expand its Class A and Class D 11-man divisions and feature North and South regions in all six classes, including Large- and Small-School eight-man, based on the proposal of the Maine Principals' Association's football committee.
Current Class B teams Portland, Noble, South Portland and Windham are slotted to return to Class A, which will increase from eight to 12 teams. Portland, South Portland and Windham were in Class A as recently as 2018. Noble, which went 1-7 in Class B last year (1-8 with a playoff loss), last played in Class A in 2014.
The proposal will be reviewed and potentially modified Jan. 19 by the MPA's Classification Committee. Once approved at that level, it will advance to the Interscholastic Management Committee's Jan. 26 meeting and would become officially approved by a vote of the general membership at its annual conference in April.
Also on the agenda for the Jan. 19 classification meeting are proposals from the volleyball and soccer committees. Volleyball is looking to add a fourth class for its 47 programs, creating a Class D for schools with enrollments of less than 300. Soccer expects to add an eight-player division for both boys and girls. Similar to the move to eight-man football prior to the 2019 season, small-sided soccer is viewed as an alternative for schools that have struggled to field 11-player rosters. It is expected that at least 22 girls' programs and 19 boys' programs, to be divided into North and South regions, will opt for small-sided soccer.
A meeting to discussion basketball classification is scheduled for Thursday.
The football proposal's most significant change is adding four teams to Class A, which has been an eight-team league since 2019, by lowering the enrollment cutoff from 950 to 900 students. Deering, with 918 students including participation of Casco Bay School students, appealed its placement in Class A and has been placed in Class B.
The contraction from 14 to eight Class A teams prior to the 2019 season was spurred by several schools, notably Massabesic, South Portland and especially Deering, claiming their programs were being damaged by annual beatings from Thornton Academy, Bonny Eagle and Scarborough — then considered the top three teams in the state and all in Class A South. In 2018, South Portland opted to skip its first-round playoff game.
South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston said he and Coach Aaron Filieo anticipated next year's return to Class A.
"When we were placed in B it helped us as a program, and I think Coach Filieo has done a really nice job developing his program," Livingston said. "Our (participation) numbers are back up in a more favorable position and I do know that the scheduling committee still plans to create schedules as they have done in the past with cross classification matchups and trying to establish matchups that are as appropriate as can be."
This past season, a new football scheduling committee put together schedules that emphasized matching competitive opponents and encouraged cross-class contests. The plan worked well. Scoring margin in the 57 cross-class 11-man games was less than in same-class games, and schools from the smaller division won 29 of those games.
"That cross-class competitive scheduling makes this much easier to implement," said Mike Burnham, the MPA's executive director. "Now kids are in games where they can compete and feel good about it. That certainly has helped the process of being able to classify by dividing equally into these classes."
The football scheduling committee is expected to begin its work on the 2023 schedule immediately after the classification committee approves the plan. Also, it is expected that Class A teams will play some games against New Hampshire schools, as happened for the first time in 2022, creating further scheduling flexibility.
The football committee did not discuss dividing the 50 11-man programs into three classes, said Winthrop Athletic Director Joel Stoneton, a committee member.
"We decided to stay with four (classes) and adjust the numbers a little. With the schedules we came up with last season, we came up with pretty competitive games, and I expect we'll do that again," Stoneton said.
The option of making each class a single statewide division was debated, Burnham said.
"There were people who support having regional alignment and others who feel without it, you tend to have the two best teams advance to the championship," Burnham said.
Livingston said South Portland benefited from playing in the B South championship game last fall, where it lost to rival Portland.
"There was a lot of excitement in South Portland with the football team playing for a regional title," Livingston said. "It just adds that extra flavor to it. It's not just a playoff game. It's a regional final. And that's an important thing."
Class A will be divided into two six-team divisions. Thornton Academy, Sanford, Bonny Eagle, Scarborough, Noble and South Portland will be in the South. Portland and Windham will return to Class A North, where they played through the 2018 season with Bangor, Edward Little, Lewiston and 2022 Class A champion Oxford Hills.
Class B, for schools of 650-899 students, will have Deering, Massabesic, Gorham, Biddeford, Kennebunk, Marshwood and Westbrook in a seven-team South. Westbrook played in Class C last season. The six-team North includes 2022 state champion Skowhegan, Mt. Blue, Falmouth, Messalonskee, Cony, and Lawrence. Both Cony (630 students) and Lawrence (587 students) petitioned up to play in a league with some of their traditional Pine Tree Conference opponents.
Class C (500-649 students) will have two six-team divisions, with Hampden Academy (810 students) and Brewer (703) petitioning to move down and Cheverus (364) petitioning to stay in Class C, where it played this past fall. Hampden, Brewer, Nokomis, Hermon, Medomak Valley and Oceanside will be in the North. The South will have 2022 state champion Leavitt with Gardiner, Fryeburg Academy, Cape Elizabeth, York and Cheverus.
Class D (499 or fewer students), which had eight teams with no regional divisions last fall, would be reconfigured with seven teams in one region and six in the other. Madison has requested to be placed in the North rather than the South. If that happens, the North will have John Bapst, Old Town, Belfast, Winslow, Maine Central Institute, defending state champion Foxcroft Academy and Madison. The South would consist of Freeport, Poland, Wells, Oak Hill, Lisbon/St. Dominic and Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale.
Freeport (603 students) and John Bapst (535) petitioned to remain in Class D, and Old Town (517) petitioned to move down from Class C. Belfast, Winslow, MCI and Wells also played in Class C last fall.
"We've been very happy in Class D," said Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels. "We've had winning records, but our games have been competitive. We haven't made it to the championship and we're not knocking them dead."
Sickels said Class D fits Freeport, which will have around 30 players after losing most of its top skill players to graduation.
The eight-man ranks are expected to add Brunswick to the Large School division. Brunswick would become the 28th eight-man program.
Brunswick has advertised for a new head coach to replace Brandon Dorsett after its 0-8 season in 2022. The Dragons suspended their 2021 season after a preseason hazing incident that eventually led to the removal of longtime and successful head coach Dan Cooper.
Staff writer Travis Lazarczyk contributed to this story.