The landscape of Maine high school football likely will see changes for the 2019 season as it was announced the Maine Principals' Association committee for the sport will recommend eight-player as an alternative to 11-player football when student-athletes hit the gridiron in the fall.

Eight-player will be an alternative — and not a replacement — for 11-player football.

The MPA meeting on Thursday, Nov. 29 at the organization's office lasted about three hours before the recommendation was made official.

The recommendation includes two divisions of eight-player football, one for schools with enrollments of 350 students or less, and the other for schools with 351 or more.

The addition of the eight-player football division means the experimental Class E Division, introduced in the fall of 2017, has been eliminated.

Traditionally, football in Maine has been only three classes, before a fourth class — Class D — was added in 2013.

As it stands, the MPA will send surveys to schools to gauge interest in eight-player football. And answers to those surveys will hold weight when the MPA makes its final determination of the concept at its spring conference April 24-26 at the Samoset Resort in Rockport.

Many logistical hurdles will have to be jumped between now and then. In the meantime, schools throughout the state — and locally — are preparing for it as a foregone conclusion.

“As far as the significance of the vote, I’d say it’s historic for football in Maine,” said Medomak Valley High School athletic director Matt Lash, who attended the meeting. “I think the bulk of the discussion throughout the meeting was what’s best for football long term in the state. I certainly agree with their decision. I think it’s going to be good for football overall, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on how its going to impact schools of varying sizes throughout the state.”

Many states have experimented with eight-player football, which is played with three fewer players per side than traditional 11-on-11 football. The game is, for all intents and purposes, the same, with two less linemen and one less “skill position” player (running back/wide receiver) on the field at any given time.

In some instances, field dimensions change in eight-player football, though that determination, along with many others, has not yet been made.

There are several reasons for the proposed change, the most prevalent being the risk of head injuries and/or concussions, which has impacted the number of players who have participated in football in more recent years.

Reactions are mixed throughout area schools that offer football, such as Oceanside of Rockland, Camden Hills of Rockport, Belfast, Mount View of Thorndike and Medomak Valley, with some open to the idea and others that feel the change would be unnecessary.

Oceanside athletic director Molly Bishop said the change “is great for the state of Maine, but we’re staying where we are.”

“I’m lucky enough that we have a program that, for the foreseeable future, will not have to go to [eight-player] football,” said Oceanside coach Wes Drinkwater. “I like 11-man football. I never even looked into eight-player football, but I see why it’s necessary.”

Drinkwater said when he took over the Oceanside football program in 2013, he “would have loved to have had an eight-player football league I could have gone into for a couple years.”

“When I took over the team, the year before, they finished with 17 kids,” he said. “I did a lot of recruiting that first year. And we were playing in Class B South. I think Marshwood’s jayvee team had like 40 kids. I had about 10 football players and about 23 kids that wanted to learn how to play football.”

Lash said that Medomak Valley, which became a varsity program in 2015 and postseason eligible in 2017 — and made the playoffs for the first time in school history this fall — will remain in 11-on-11 for the time being.

“I think our numbers are such currently at high school, middle school and feeder program-wise that at least in the near future, we’re playing 11-versus-11 football,” he said. “I haven’t had those discussions back at school yet, but all indications to me say that’s where we’re going to be.”

Of all the local schools, Camden Hills has perhaps the most interesting conundrum, as, where it participated in Class E last year, it currently is a school without a division.

Camden Hills petitioned down from Class B to Class D in 2015 — making it ineligible for postseason play — only to cancel its season three games into that campaign due to low participation numbers and overall safety concerns.

In 2016, the school played a junior varsity schedule and then joined the then newly-formed Class E in 2017, a developmental class for schools with low participation numbers looking to resurrect its programs.

If eight-player football is approved in the spring, the Windjammers essentially will have two choices: To join eight-player football, or likely to rejoin the Class B ranks, where it belongs in terms of school enrollment.

Windjammer coach Jeremy Marks, who also attended the meeting, said “while we’re still kind of on the fence with what we want to do,” he admitted that “after this meeting, my inclination is shifting [toward being in favor of eight-player football].”

“If playing in eight-man allows us to continue to grow the program and that student-athletes will have healthy experiences with the game of football, I’m going to lean that way,” he said. “It’s all about the athletes and making sure they have a safe, pleasurable, fun experience. But there’s the other side that yearns to be a legitimate, 11-man squad, and maybe we play two years in [Class] D without playoffs, continue to grow the program, have success and then play in the proper classification down the road like Medomak [Valley] has with their program over the past few years.”

And, Marks said, “The MPA will fully recognize [eight-player] football.”

“It will have a playoff structure, it will have a neutral site playoff game and it will be for a gold ball,” he said. “They will fully legitimize that process.”

The MPA did not fully recognize Class E previously as the championship games were held at the home of the highest remaining seeds and plaques were given to the state champions in lieu of the traditional “gold ball.”

Camden Hills athletic director Steve Alex said,“There’s a lot of things to consider.”

“We’re collaborating with other folks, talking with Five Town Football and getting their input,” he said. “We haven’t made a decision and we aren’t even close to making a decision. What’s going to drive our decision-making process is what the MPA comes back with after the survey comes out.”

Belfast Area High School athletic director Terry Kenniston said, “We’re going to look at all options.”

“We’re looking at sustainability, we’re looking at eight-man [football], we’re looking at co-oping, all of those different discussions.”

Kenniston said they started the regular season “in the neighborhood of 26-30 [kids]” and ended the season at its Class C North playoff game with Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield with “maybe 22 dressed at the playoff game, if we’re lucky.”

Belfast traditionally is a strong football program that has played in six state Class B championship games, winning three in 1996, 1999 and 2003. But, like teams throughout the state, the Lions have seen their numbers dip in recent seasons.

“Belfast was the standard for football around here when I was growing up,” said Drinkwater, who played football for then Rockland District High School and graduated in 2004. “So if Belfast is having trouble, two years from now it could be me having trouble.”

While Kenniston is all for the sustainability of the sport in the state, he still has concerns.

“If a large number of teams go [eight-player], I think football is going to get reduced to three classes,” he said. “And being on the upper end of the ‘C’ numbers potentially, we’re going to get kicked to ‘B.’ And that’s not good for us.”

And a possible co-op team with Searsport, which Kenniston said is “open to the conversation,” would make that more likely.

The community of Searsport dabbled with an unofficial high school football team a few years ago, playing in a developmental league, but that only lasted a couple of seasons.

According to the MPA’s annual bulletin, classification enrollment is “based on the percentage of athletes from each school, other than the host school, which would be 100 percent, that participated in the program the previous year. For those schools that did not sponsor the sport, an anticipated number of athletes that will be participating in the program will be used.

So, could Belfast more or less be forced into eight-player football in that scenario? “That could very well be the case," Kenniston said.

“We’ve got to engage a lot of people in that conversation,” he said.

Mount View High School is another that, in terms of school enrollment, could make sense for eight-player football.

However, athletic director Chris Moreau said, at this juncture, the Mustangs are not considering that option.

“We are planning on remaining in [11-player football],” he said. “We’re above the cut, so I think we’re going to stay right there right now. We’re not positive yet. But we’re comfortably within the number right now of schools that would remain and I think that’s what are intentions are at the moment.”

“Should events warrant or necessitate us to have further discussions, we’ll continue to do that.”

Adding to the intrigue of the MPA’s spring meeting is the biannual reclassification meeting, which will determine where teams/schools will be placed in all MPA-sponsored sports for the next two-year cycle.

Surveys sent by the MPA to schools regarding interest in eight-player football will be due back to the MPA by Wednesday, Dec. 19.