High school athletics hold a prominent place in the hearts of many throughout Maine. Whether it is the buzz of a game played reverberating off the walls of a local high school, from student chatter or water cooler conversation from proud alumni or administrators, many are on point when it comes to where their alma maters may sit in the standings.

But much the way a beautiful building is erected, it is often the foundation that helps hold the structure in place. And such a foundation does indeed exist in the Midcoast at the middle school sports level in the form of the Busline League, which, for decades, has helped mold the youths of today into the high school sports standouts of tomorrow.

Since the league’s inception, a multitude of champions have been crowned at the state high school level across several different sports including basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, cheerleading and field hockey, which all have programs in place at the Busline League level.

The Busline League began in the early 1960s when Earl Sprague, who was the longtime athletic director for then Camden-Rockport High School, was the coach of the Mary E. Taylor School hoop squads. Then the league not only consisted of five schools, but boys basketball was the only sport offered.

According to Camden Hills Regional High School athletic director Bill Hughes, who was the athletic director at Thomaston Grammar School for years, the Busline League was named in the simplest of notions.

“Because you just got on your bus and it was a line right to the [next] school,” he said.

Camden-Rockport (then Mary E. Taylor), Rockland, Union, Waldoboro and Thomaston were the five original members of the Busline League, with many more teams added over the decades. Waldoboro later became A.D. Gray upon the completion of the newly constructed Medomak Valley High School in 1968, while Union became D.R. Gaul when its new school opened in 1986.

From those original five, 16 more schools were added over the next four decades — including three this past season — to give the Busline League one of the largest middle school sports leagues in the Pine Tree State.

Today, teams from Appleton, Boothbay, Bristol, Camden-Rockport, Great Salt Bay in Damariscotta, Hope, Islesboro, Jefferson, Lincolnville, Medomak, Nobleboro, Richmond, Rockland, Searsport, St. George, South Bristol, Troy Howard in Belfast, Thomaston, Vinalhaven, Wiscasset and Woolwich compete in the Busline League in various leagues, divisions and sports.

The number of sports offered in the league grew along with the participating schools, with boys and girls cross country, field hockey, boys soccer, baseball and softball being introduced in 1974. Today, the Busline League features cross country (boys and girls), soccer (boys, girls, coed), field hockey (girls), softball (girls), baseball (boys), track and field (coed), golf (coed), cheering (coed) and basketball (boys and girls, two divisions each).

According to Sprague, it was a fuel shortage in the mid-1970s that perhaps, by accident, began the expansion of the league.

The school board had told Sprague that due to the fuel shortage, his team was allowed to travel no more than 35 miles to play basketball games.

“That took us down as far as Damariscotta,” said Sprague. “I said, well, I can go 35 miles in the other direction [as well], and they agreed to that. And that’s when we started playing Belfast, Searsport and, in those days, they weren’t part of the Busline League, but we [also] played Bucksport.”

Teams from the south did not enter the Busline League until years later, but that opened the door for Belfast (then Crosby School) and Searsport to enter the league. St. George later joined the Busline League as well in the late-70s to give the league eight schools to compete with for the better part of the next decade.

Former Rockland educator and coach Joe Keller became the then Rockland District Junior High School athletic director in 1989 and also was the girls basketball coach, throwing him into the thick of the Busline League fray. Additionally Paul Russo, who is currently the principal at Lincolnville Central School, has been involved in the Busline League for nearly 20 years when he first became principal of Appleton Village School in 1991. Both men played significant roles in helping the Busline League become what it is today, which is a fully functional organization with a president, secretary/treasurer and executive committee representatives.

A constitution for the league was drafted in 1990, and slowly the league began to take on a much more formal façade. Russo acted as league president for years and is currently the secretary/treasurer.

Rockland District middle and high school athletic director Jim Leonard is the current Busline League president. He is in the midst of his second full year in that capacity.

While Leonard oversees the league, many of the athletic directors of the participating schools all do their part in making sure the league runs smoothly.

“Each individual sport has its own chair[person],” said Leonard. “They’re responsible for generating the schedule, getting it approved, managing the results and standings and setting up a playoff structure, making sure results are reported and just making sure everything runs smoothly. They administrate the championship events and present the trophies. Everyone has their own sport that they do.”

An example of that structure would be Thomaston Grammar School’s Scott Herrick being the chairperson for soccer, Troy Howard Middle School’s Wendy Reed being the chairperson for field hockey and Leonard being the chairperson for large school division basketball.

“I would liken the way we do our work as administrators to what I see at the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conferene level,” said Leonard. “They run a very professional league. We meet on a fairly regular basis. When we’re not meeting we’re in contact via e-mail. All the ADs are responsive [and] it’s a pretty good deal.”

Leonard is on many committees within the KVAC and is also the KVAC Class B chairperson for goal.

The league has also made strides over the past few years and have recently implemented their own sportsmanship award. Another positive is that every team makes the postseason, giving all those involved the opportunity to compete in a playoff-based atmosphere.

Appleton, Lincolnville and Hope were added to the Busline League in the early 1990s, while the mid-90s saw the most significant jump in expansion when the league added teams from Boothbay, Wiscasset, Bristol, Great Salt Bay and Nobleboro. South Bristol and Woolwich also were added a few years later, giving the league, at that point, 18 teams.

“We just started getting bigger and bigger,” said Keller. “We added those smaller schools, we added Boothbay, we asked Wiscasset if they wanted to come in because those guys really didn’t have anywhere to go too.”

Keller, a Damariscotta resident, retired from teaching in 2007 and is currently the Great Salt Bay field hockey coach.

In 2008, the number of schools in the league dwindled to 17, with the folding of A.D. Gray and D.R. Gaul, which combined to become Medomak Middle School. Jefferson then joined the Busline League the following year, while Vinalhaven, Islesboro and Richmond became league members this past fall.

The new bloods have already made an impact, with the Jefferson girls soccer and softball teams advancing to the Busline League finals last year, while the Richmond girls soccer team won the league title in October and the Vinalhaven boys advanced to the small school basketball championship game this season.

In instances such as soccer, which has boys, girls and coed leagues available; and basketball, which has both large school (Division I) and small school (Division II), there is no set formula as to which teams play in which division or which players are assigned to which team. That is left to the discretion of the coaches and the athletic directors, who work together to try and keep the playing field as balanced as possible for the student-athletes.

“We have the flexibility to do that kind of stuff in the league when it warrants it, which is one of the strengths of the league,” said Russo. “It’s really based on the honor system. Schools know what they have, they understand the level of competition and the goal is to try to match your school to the appropriate level of competition.”

Leonard added that having more options gives more young student-athletes the chance to participate, which is the optimal goal at the middle school level.

“That way some of the younger kids that may not get as much playing time as their seventh- and eighth-grade counterparts would have an opportunity to play on a coed team where the competitive level would be something they could handle and still get plenty of time to play a full schedule of soccer,” he said.

Leonard feels that expansion for the Busline League in the future is always possible and, should that happen, the league may start looking toward a more regional format for regular-season play.

For example, in baseball, softball and soccer, most teams north of Medomak in Waldoboro play in one division and teams south of Medomak play another, with the winners of both divisions clashing for the league championship. The inclusion of more teams could make that a reality in all Busline League team sports, which would cut down significantly on travel costs.

“Belfast to Boothbay is not a short trip,” said Leonard.

Either is Searsport to Richmond or Woolwich, which is nearly 70 miles apart, or an 80-minute ferry boat ride to Vinalhaven, which is the geographical area the Busline League includes.

The league also had its own logo created last year by St. George arts teacher Sylvia Percy, which Leonard said “encompasses everything that middle school sports is all about.”

“It’s a little less serious and a little less formal, and that’s kind of the whole thing behind middle school sports” he said. “It’s organized, but it’s not quite as formal as high school.”

Village NetMedia Associate Sports Director Mark Haskell can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail at mhaskell@villagesoup.com.