Week four is now in the books for the 2015 Maine high school football season. Thirty seven games were played from the tip of southern Maine to Millinocket. Most of the results will soon be forgotten. Perhaps the one contest that resonates loudest from the weekend was the game that wasn’t played. Ellsworth/Sumner, winners of two straight, having lost their first twenty-four games as a varsity program was to travel to Rockport on Saturday to face Camden Hills. The Windjammers were also in the midst of building their program, albeit they had been through the gridiron wars significantly longer.
On Thursday, both teams learned the fate of Saturday’s contest. Administrators at Camden Hills decided to pull the plug on the program for this year, citing a low number of participants. According to several news stories, thirteen of the twenty-seven players on the roster were freshmen. Football, of course, is different from other sports. Not only does a young, inexperienced squad often take a beating on the scoreboard, there is the inherent physical risk when a 130 pound freshman goes against a 220 pound senior.
Since the mid 1990’s high school football has grown by approximately twenty programs. The results have been mixed. Bonny Eagle is the gold standard having won five state championships since the infancy of their football program in the mid-90’s. Windham is a consistent contender in Class A . Yarmouth has won a couple of gold balls. Cape Elizabeth is solid year in and year out, having appeared in a state title game. Falmouth is also unbeaten through four games in a strong class B west. These programs also prove football can co-exist in a strong soccer community.
Some of the most recent programs are also experiencing their share of gridiron success. Houlton, in their second varsity season, won two games a year ago and was competitive in a number of other contests. Medomak Valley played an exhibition schedule a year ago and are in their first varsity season. The Panthers from Waldoboro are currently 4-0, albeit playing down a class from where their enrollment dictates, thus being ineligible for postseason play. If all goes well, they will likely play in Class C beginning with the 2017 season, making themselves playoff eligible.
On the other end of the spectrum are a number of fledgling teams, programs which are still looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the efforts of many, there are also those communities where football simply hasn’t worked out. Sacopee Valley dropped their program only a few short years after its inception. Calais-Woodland tasted early success at the varsity level. Key injuries derailed a contending team in 2010. The cooperative venture would only play one more season before low numbers caused the team to be slashed. Unfortunately, the same fate has now befallen Camden Hills, although there may be a possibility football could return in some form next year.
It’s worth mentioning building a high school football program from scratch is hard, very hard. Unlike basketball where if you are blessed with two or three stars the team becomes an instant contender, football requires numbers and lots of them. So how does a community build a program from the ground up? In following this game for the past three decades, there seems to be a formula all successful programs have. Of course, there is the natural fluctuation of talent which differs from year to year, but by and large here are the ingredients all successful programs have:
The most important element a start-up program must establish is hiring the right coach. Coaching is of paramount importance in football more than any other team sport. Now, securing this type of individual is easier said than done. Bonny Eagle when they first built their program, hired Kevin Cooper, who played in a successful program under his father, Pete Cooper, at Lawrence. He also had a strong playing career at Dartmouth before coaching at the collegiate level at UMaine. Bringing dad on board following his retirement at Lawrence brought the new program instant credibility within the community.
Whoever is in charge needs to be committed for the long haul. He can’t be the typical Little League coach who sees his kids through and calls it quits. The individual needs to have a clear vision for the entire community, starting with the youth ranks. A successful system should have a strong youth program in place long before high school football is even discussed. The coach also needs to be fully involved and act as a coach to the other coaches throughout the system.
It is also helpful, but not entirely necessary to have the coach be someone who is in the school building during the day. If not, he at least needs to be someone who is heavily involved and well known throughout the community. Having someone in-house helps in promoting the program. The key to football, and any sport really, is to get the better athletes in the school playing the sport. I know over the years in the John Bapst program, Coach Dan O’Connell has been able to successfully get a few kids a year out for football, who had to be prodded a bit to come out. Once they got on the field, over time a number of these kids, who hadn’t donned pads before became great assets to the team.
A fledgling program needs to be willing to start slowly and sometimes endure a few rough seasons. The community as a whole needs to be patient with this process. It’s unrealistic to think a program a few years in existence can compete successfully with a community that’s been playing the sport for decades. It takes time to build a football culture within a town.
In order for football to be a fit in a community, everyone needs to be on board. Administrators, town members, students, and staff have to support the program for it to eventually be successful.
Even with all these elements in place, not every community is a great fit for football. I’m sure Camden Hills as well as other schools who have suspended their programs put a lot of time and effort in drawing support for the game of football. Perhaps with Camden Hills, they can go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and once again build this program from the ground up, if they so desire.