With the presentation of four gold balls during this past frigid weekend, the 2014 Maine high school football season came to a close. It also marked the second season the state’s football playing schools have competed under the four classification system.
Despite this weekend’s relatively one-sided state title contests, all four games were decided by at least three touchdowns, the 2014 season provided numerous thrilling moments. There was Cheverus’ improbable double-overtime victory at Thornton, in which the Stags’ only lead was attained in the second overtime period. Windham earned a trip to the state final by rallying from a 14-3 fourth quarter deficit at Cheverus to tie the regional final, forcing overtime. A blocked extra point on Cheverus’ possession in overtime punched the Eagles ticket to Fitzpatrick Stadium for gold ball Saturday.
Of course, as with any season, there were as many, if not more, one-sided contests, soon to be forgotten, as there were “instant classics.” Throughout the course of the season, I’ve had a number of conversations regarding competitive balance in Maine high school football. Does the four class system as currently implemented work for Maine high school football?
Nobody like to see routine blowouts in football, or any other sport for that matter. The question is what can be, or should be done, if anything, to resolve this perceived “problem”.
It should be noted the four class proposal for football was never intended to be the panacea to create complete competitive balance. The primary impetus behind the proposal was to narrow the competitive gap amongst the largest schools and the smallest enrollments within classifications. Retired Mount Blue High School football coach Gary Parlin was one of the primary architects of the current system. The initial proposal was being constructed in the mid-2000’s, while Parlin’s Cougars competed in Class A at the time, with an enrollment some 600+ students below the largest schools in that class. Coach Parlin’s Mt. Blue team captured the 2005 Eastern Maine Championship before being ousted 41-13 by Bonny Eagle in the Class A state title game. Bonny Eagle, by the way, fielded a school population of approximately 500 more students at the time.
24-2. That was the record of Western Maine Class A teams against their Eastern Maine counterparts in the state championship game from 1987-2012 under the three class system. Only Bangor in 2001, who has one of the states top enrollment figures, and Lawrence in 2006, were able to break through and capture gold for the east during that time. In the current class A, twelve of the sixteen schools which comprise the state’s largest classification competed in western Maine under the three class system. Biddeford, who is currently a B school by enrollment petitioned up to play in class A and is locked in for another two years.
So the answer is yes, the four class system has done what it was intended to do. It has allowed those schools who had smaller enrollments under the previous system to have a better opportunity to compete for a championship. Cony and Kennebunk last season are great examples. In class A in 2012 both teams were competitive with Cony reaching the Eastern Maine title game while Kennebunk lost a competitive quarterfinal game to eventual state champion Thornton Academy. Cony captured their first state crown since 1933 with a thrilling victory at UMaine, capped off by a game winning 99-yard scoring drive.
Should more be done to create competitive balance? The MPA uses enrollment figures to place each school in their respective classes. Should other factors be considered besides straight enrollment numbers? Should teams be promoted or demoted based on the success of their programs?
To answer these questions we really need to ask ourselves another fundamental question: Should it be the role of the MPA to ensure competitive balance exists in athletics? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding no.
One of the purposes and goals of the MPA is to ensure to the best of their ability a level playing field exists amongst member schools. Of course, regardless of how you divide the teams, there will always be those schools at the top of the enrollment heap and those at the bottom. Through other policy implementation it is their mission to create equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.
So why not take other factors into consideration other than enrollment? In essence, enrollment is the only factor that schools do not have control over. While the MPA works to level the playing field, it is ultimately up to each school to determine how competitive they are going to be. Any competitive imbalance is not because of a systemic flaw but often due to factors such as subpar coaching, lack of strong community support, and the usual ebb and flow of talent that naturally occurs. These factors are not the MPA’s problem but to steal a phrase from ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, “That’s a you problem.”
I’ve spoken with several people who believe teams should be promoted or demoted in class based on the relative success of their program. There are a couple of problems with this idea. First, a very strong team from a smaller class would possibly be competitive but would be at a significant disadvantage against larger schools with just as strong of a football infrastructure. The reverse would also be true. A weaker program in class C for instance would likely have a large advantage over a struggling class D team. Dynasties are not necessarily a bad thing in sports yet we seem to treat this as some sort of problem to resolve. In actuality other programs should look to become more like them rather than have the bar lowered.
Secondly, just because a team is a title contender one year, or for several years, doesn’t mean that is their destiny, same for struggling programs. The fluidity of success would make this system very difficult to implement. Examples of upward mobility are numerous. Just this weekend MCI played in a state title game two seasons removed from an 0-8 season. Perennial contender John Bapst struggled to a 2-6 season a year ago before bouncing back to a six win campaign this fall. Brewer found resurgence under new leadership and went from 1-7 to 4-4 and a playoff spot this year. Lawrence was in the class A state title game in 2012, went 2-6 last year, and make an appearance in the Eastern Maine championship game this season.
Schools concerned about where they stand competitively also have the option to play up or down a class. If you play down you are not eligible for post season play. In eastern Maine, three schools elected to play down for the past two year cycle. Incidentally, two of those three still did not win a game this past season in their lower classification.
Many in the sports realm treat parity like it is some noble goal to achieve. It’s not. Not everyone lives in a fancy home and drives a Mercedes. That’s o.k. It’s called life.
Even if the goal was to achieve parity, competitive balance, no matter how hard an organization tries can never be fully attained through rules and edicts. The National Football League is the most parity driven league in professional sports. Despite every effort for the league to achieve competitive balance, the Patriots are consistent title contenders while the Raiders for the past decade plus have been perennially dreadful. Go figure.