Analysis –Maine high school basketball could face big changes as enrollments continue to decline

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The structure of high school basketball in the state is expected to proceed without significant change for the next two years after the Maine Principals’ Association classification committee recently voted to maintain enrollment cutoff standards for the next two years.

The move advances the proposal, which had been sent along to that panel by the MPA basketball committee, to further consideration by the organization’s interscholastic management committee and ultimately for approval by the full membership this spring.

The current classification model expected to be retained for the next two years features the following enrollments for each class: Class AA, 800-plus; Class A, 550-799; Class B, 325-549; Class C, 130-324; and Class D, 0-129.

Under the plan, only six schools would be re-classified next winter based on their April 1, 2018, enrollments, according to Mike Bisson, MPA assistant director and the association’s liaison to the MPA classification committee.

Those schools are: Houlton, from Class C North to Class B North; Woodland, from Class D North to Class C North; Gray-New Gloucester, from Class B South to Class A South; Lincoln Academy of Newcastle, from Class A South to Class B South; Sacopee Valley of South Hiram, from Class B South to Class C South; and North Yarmouth Academy, from Class C South to Class D South.

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But despite the relative stability in the five-class system, members of both the basketball and classification committees plan to continue working on a long-range way to support the state’s most popular interscholastic sport taking into consideration the same issues that prompted its shift to five classes beginning with the 2015-2016 season.

“What they’re going going to do over the next two years is start work on a new potential basketball model and explore different ideas,” Bisson said.

The root of the challenge is the continuing decline in high school enrollments around the state.

The fact that the state’s two biggest high schools — Thornton Academy of Saco (1,476 students) and Lewiston (1,420) — are among the handful of basketball-playing schools with growing enrollment in recent years has created an even wider enrollment gulf between the biggest and smallest schools in Class AA. Most of the other largest schools have experienced enrollment declines.

Just five Maine high schools — Thornton Academy, Lewiston, Bangor (1,202), Bonny Eagle of Standish (1,094) and Oxford Hills of South Paris (1,021) — had more than 1,000 students as of April 1, 2018, the date used for classifying teams in all sports for the next two-year cycle that begins next fall.

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That’s less than half of the 13 schools that had 1,000 or more students in 2006.

The situation leaves Thornton Academy and Lewiston with 600 students more than Gorham, which is expected to be the smallest school in Class AA for the next two years at 819 students.

Another dilemma grows deeper at the other end of the enrollment divide, with the smaller schools getting even smaller.

That trend has left the smallest Class D schools feeling challenged to compete against traditionally larger programs from higher classes that are shrinking their way toward smaller-school classes.

For the traditional Class D schools that are experiencing enrollment drops, there’s no smaller class to which they can go.

“At what point do we have to start moving some schools back up because not everybody can play in Class C and Class D?” Bisson said.

So what to do?

At least two options have been floated — one to expand to a sixth class.

Another proposal, which was discussed during the classification committee’s recent deliberations, would have adjusted the enrollment cutoffs to divide the schools more evenly among the five classes.

Those enrollment cutoffs would have been: Class AA, 750-plus; Class A, 470-749; Class B, 235-469; Class C, 110-234; and Class D, 0-109.

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That would have moved 33 of the 135 Maine high school programs statewide to different classes next winter and, among other things, created an even greater disparity between the largest and smallest schools in Class AA with the likes of Skowhegan (782) and Hampden Academy (770) moving up from Class A.

Another significant geographic shift would have elevated Belfast, Caribou, Hermon, Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, Oceanside of Rockland, Old Town and Waterville from Class B North to Class A North.

And should that ever happen, it might lead to another discussion: where to hold the Class A North tournament.

The Class A North tourney, previously known as Eastern Maine Class A, was moved from the Bangor Auditorium to the Augusta Civic Center in 2006. That came under the former four-class format when that division became increasingly populated by schools that ranged as far south as Brunswick and Oxford Hills of South Paris during the earlier stages of Maine’s student enrollment decline.

But adding those more northern teams back into to the mix — particularly teams that would have to drive past the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor to play regional tournament games at the Augusta Civic Center — along with changes already made with the shift to five classes, might bring the Class A North tournament back to its geographic roots.

“Does the A tournament come back to Bangor in that case?” Bisson asked. “That venue has tremendous fan support from those schools. High school basketball is very important to northern and eastern Maine.”

So while the classification committee’s work on basketball has been completed for the moment, the state’s ever-changing demographics indicate suggest that work is never really done.

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