MPA should consider moving back to four classes for high school basketball

Houlton fans send good vibes for a free throw against Gray-New Gloucester during the Class B girls state championship basketball game on Friday night at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Houlton won 48-35. (Ashley L. Conti/BDN)

Houlton fans send good vibes for a free throw against Gray-New Gloucester during the Class B girls state championship basketball game on Friday night at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Houlton won 48-35. (Ashley L. Conti/BDN)

After the first season of the new five-class format for Maine high school basketball, I think there were more negatives than positives in a format that was changed for the first time since 1961-62 when a fourth class was added.

Many think what sparked the discussion about the need for five classes started with what was then Class D East, but it also originated because there was a supposed enrollment problem in Class A.

Class D in Eastern Maine looked like it was going to have 25 teams, which would have forced two prelim rounds.

Some also believed there was an enrollment problem for some Class A schools that had an enrollment of just over 700 having to play schools with enrollments of over 1,400. This was more of a possible problem in Eastern Maine Class A.

Faced with declining enrollments and with 73 percent of Maine high schools with enrollments of 550 or less, and a southward population migration, Maine Principals’ Association members advocated a five-class format in an attempt to solve the problems.

There were several problems I had with the first season of the new format.

The divisions in Class AA, with eight boys each in North and South and nine girls teams in the South, were too small and forced the top two teams in each division to get byes in the quarterfinal rounds — a rare occurrence in the  history of Maine high school basketball.

This created a disadvantage for the top two teams as they had to wait 12 days, from their last regular-season game until the semifinal round, to get a game on a tournament floor on which the quarterfinal winner had already played.

Some eight-game tourney days also occurred, another downer as it puts teams in game times they don’t encounter during the regular season, especially the final games on those days.

Another negative created by the five-class format was no televised games in the regional semifinal and championship rounds. Maine Public Broadcasting Network administrators said in November 2015 the network couldn’t carry the regional semifinals and finals because the addition of a fifth class, Class AA, left them shy of resources to handle the extra coverage.

A problem occurred, also, in the imbalance of several classes: Class B North boys and girls with 17 teams each, Class C North boys and girls with 18, Class C South boys with 18 and C South girls with 21. The other classes, A through D, averaged just 12 to 14 teams.

However, there were some positives resulting in the new format.

More teams, 24, qualified for the tourney, and more officials were able to work games.

The new class names of North and South, instead of East and West, are more accurate designations, and it also was refreshing to see Portland-area teams actually have to travel for some tourney games to Augusta after their opponents had hit the road in many past tourney years.

It’s unlikely that change will occur from the new five-class format for the next season, but based on my past experience serving on the Maine Principals’ Association’s Classification Committee and my years as an athletic director, I would recommend the Maine Principals’ Association move back to four classes and divide them up evenly.

There are 71 boys and 71 girls teams in the North and 65 boys teams and 67 girls teams in the South. The breakdown should be four classes of 18-18-18-17 in the North and then 16-16-16-17 for South boys and 16-17-17-17 for South girls.

I realize this won’t solve the so-called problem of a team on the low end of enrollment in a class facing a team on the higher end of enrollment.

However, basketball uses only five players at a time, compared to football-soccer and field hockey’s 11, and baseball’s nine. Team depth for basketball is not as big an issue, and an enrollment difference is not as difficult to successfully compete in basketball.

Remember the Hampden Academy boys dropped down a class this season after dominating what is now Class AA for the past four seasons.

For other schools, the Fort Fairfield boys and girls teams moved from Class D to C and were at the bottom of Class C enrollment figures, but the girls finished first in the Heal points and the boys were second.

The Houlton girls also moved up a class, from C to B and captured their second straight state title, and the Orono boys moved from C to B and advanced to the regional final.

Other teams not bothered by moving up were the Oceanside and Medomak Valley boys teams, which both moved from Class B to A where Oceanside beat Medomak in the regional final.

Whatever format is in place, it’s likely that all schools will never be totally pleased with it, especially those at the bottom of the enrollment ranges in each class.