Could 9-player soccer help save the sport at Maine’s smallest high schools?

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Basketball tournament week brought together small-school soccer coaches from western and southern Maine last February at the Augusta Civic Center to discuss one of the bigger issues facing their sport.

A player shortage.

“We informally agreed that if one team arrived at a match this fall with just 10 players, both teams would play with 10 players,” said Greater Portland Christian School athletic administrator and soccer coach Chris Spaulding.

Small schools struggling to field the 11 players needed for a regulation soccer team, and a few more who would provide valued depth, is nothing new. But with Maine high school enrollments continuing to decline or students choosing other co-curricular options, conversations about creating a soccer division requiring only nine players per team are gaining steam.

“Where we have so many schools that are getting smaller and smaller, trying to get 11 on a field is very difficult when you’ve only got 40 to 60 to 80 kids in your school. You need almost everybody to play, basically,” said Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director Mike Bisson.

If the nine-player concept were eventually adopted, it would be a first at Maine high schools. And National Federation of State High School Associations records going back 10 years show no states sponsoring competition in the 9-on-9 format.

However, the 9-on-9 game has been implemented by youth soccer leagues across the country.

The challenge is most pronounced in Class D, home of the Maine’s smallest high schools.

Eight of the 20 boys soccer teams in Class D North this year are from schools with enrollments of fewer than 95 students, according to the MPA. Wisdom of Saint Agatha is the smallest (67).

Ten of the 14 Class D South boys soccer schools have enrollments below 85, including Greenville High School, with Chop Point of Woolwich, Islesboro and Seacoast Christian of North Berwick all fielding co-ed teams.

Seven of the 18 Class D North girls soccer teams have fewer than 95 students, while seven of 13 Class D South girls teams come from schools with fewer than 85 students.

“Teams are trying to do 11-player soccer with sometimes 11, 12, 13 or even 14 kids and it’s tough,” said Tim Watt, athletic administrator at Fort Fairfield High School and president of the Aroostook League, which includes most of the Class D schools in northern Maine. “Then all of a sudden you lose a kid or two to injury and you’re either playing short-handed or with 11.”

The Fort Fairfield boys, who won the Class D state championship in 2015 and reached the regional semifinals last year, received an MPA waiver to add eighth-graders to the roster this fall after only 12 high school students tried out for the team. Eighth-graders may be added to varsity rosters if the school has 60 or fewer students of the gender of the requesting team.

Class D North school East Grand of Danforth canceled its 2018 soccer season due to a lack of players, though the presence of an active middle school program in that community suggests the high school soccer hiatus may be temporary.

“You hate to see schools have to cancel their season because they only have seven or eight kids coming out even though they’re trying hard to recruit kids to be there so they can field a team,” Bisson said. “If we can get it to a number that they can field teams at, that would be very positive.”

Greater Portland Christian School is the smallest Maine high school (35 students) fielding boys and girls soccer teams this fall. It has 16 boys and 12 girls playing, including four eighth-graders on each squad.

The GPCS girls played each of their first three games this season with one of the teams fielding fewer than 11 players.

“At our last girls game, one girl missed school because she was sick and two girls got banged up during the game, so there were times when we had nine players on the field,” Spaulding said.

He explained that some coaches are willing to pull players off the field to match the numbers of the diminished team. But not all do so.

“I’ll be honest, it wasn’t true of me five or six years ago, but I’ve had a change in how I think about that,” Spaulding said.

Spaulding also has had a recent change of heart regarding the possibility of nine-player soccer.

“I’m starting to come around on it because I’m concerned we’re going to lose our girls program,” he said. “If you dropped that number, it would probably ensure that schools like ours would continue having programs for girls and boys and it might encourage other schools to try to field teams.”

Schools from the East-West Conference, which covers much of Class D South, also have expressed interest in the nine-player concept.

Forest Hills of Jackman, which competes in the East-West Conference, hasn’t fielded soccer teams since the 1990s due to a lack of numbers. But athletic administrator Anthony Amero suggested that a nine-player soccer division could at least spark conversation about bringing the sport back to his school.

“But because of the costs [including new equipment and remaking the field] we would need to make sure we could sustain it for five years or more,” he said. “For small schools, it’s tough to get things back once you lose them because the budget moves on with or without that team.”

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