December 5, 2013

HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS: MPA talks about classificiation

Eliminating regions, 5th class in basketball discussed

By Travis Lazarczyk tlazarczyk@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — No major changes are imminent, but the Maine Principals’ Association is open to anything that could make high school sports in the state a better experience for student athletes and fans.

On Thursday, the MPA’s classification committee met with members of the organization’s other committee’s to share some of the ideas that have been proposed, including adding a fifth class to high school basketball, and doing away with the East and West regional designations.

“There’s been a lot of discussion on what can be done differently. We’re throwing everything on the table,” said Mt. Desert Island athletic director Bunky Dow, who is chairperson of the MPA’s classiciation committee.

According to figures provided to the MPA by member schools, enrollment across the state is shrinking. In 2006, 13 high schools had at least 1,000 students. In 2012, just nine high schools had enrollments of 1,000 or more, and in the last seven years, only 10 public high schools in Maine have grown. Sixty-two percent of the high schools in Maine have an enrollment of fewer than 500 students, said Gerry Durgin, the MPA’s liaison to the classification committee.

Of the 141 high schools that fielded a basketball team last winter, 76 played in Class C or Class D, the two smallest divisions.

“We’re at the point where, it’s not going to be a discussion anymore,” Durgin said. “At some point, the classification committee will recommend we go to five classes.”

If a fifth class is added to high school basketball to accommodate the growing number of small schools, it would mark a major cultural change in Maine high school sports, Gary Stevens, athletic director at Thornton Academy of Saco, said, much like adding a fourth class to high school football was this fall.

Fans can look at the recently completed high school football season, which saw three of the four games decided by a touchdown or less and in the final minutes, as an example of how a major change could be successful, Stevens said.

“State championship weekend is proof it worked out pretty well,” Stevens said. “We have that example we can draw on.”

With tight budgets taxed by long travel for games, an idea was discussed that would make Heal points, the system which determines playoff seeding in many Maine high school sports, uniform throughout each class. Currently, games won over opponents in higher classes are worth more than those won in the smaller school divisions.

If Heal points were the same throughout, would some schools schedule games against closer opponents? Jeff Benson, athletic director at Oxford Hills of South Paris, said there are three schools — Fryeburg Academy, Gray-New Gloucester and Poland — within a half hour drive of his school that he does not schedule because of commitments to the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference.

Making Heal point values uniform could hurt some isolated schools, Lawrence athletic director Bill MacManus said. Forest Hills of Jackman, for instance, is approximately 50 miles from each of its nearest rivals, Greenville and Valley of Bingham. If schools were encouraged to schedule out of conference games with closer opponents, a school like Forest Hills could be left scrambling for games, MacManus said.

Another idea is to remove the East and West regions currently used in the postseason in each class, and go with either a North/South format, or smaller districts. East and West are often distinctions in name only. Searsport, which sits on Penobscot Bay, is now slotted in Western Class D. As more schools shrink, a school like Bangor Christian, a longtime Eastern Class D contender in many sports, could be asked to play in Western Maine tournaments.

Bangor Christian would make that move if asked, Jim Frost, the school’s headmaster said, but it hopes that move will be unnecessary.

“The East/West thing may have run its course,” Durgin said.

Durgin reiterated that no changes have been recommended yet, and the classification committee is just looking at different models.

Paul Bickford, an Oxford Hills administrator and member of the MPA football committee, said any changes will need to take time, and reminded the group the move to four classes in football took years of discussion.

“It took a lot of time,” Bickford said. “None of these things are going to happen overnight.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242tlazarczyk@centralmaine.comTwitter: @TLazarczykMTM
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