Sports column: Time ripe for four divisions in Vermont football

In the coming weeks, Vermont football officials will gather and decide how to align divisions for the state’s 34 football-playing high schools.
Currently, there are three divisions, with 14 schools in D-I and 10 apiece in D-II and D-III. That alignment has been in place since 2011.
In 2009 and 2010, there were 10 teams in D-I and 12 apiece in D-II and D-III.
Like alignments in other sports in Vermont, football alignments are re-evaluated and often tweaked every two years. Unlike in other sports, the Vermont Principals’ Association seems less involved in football decisions, leaving a committee of coaches and athletic directors to come up with a proposal, and then signing off on it. The VPA does not even include football on its online “Sports Rankings” feature.
Not all that long ago — 2004, to be exact — Vermont had four divisions. D-IV, mostly including the smallest schools and those newest to the sport, played eight-man football. Winooski, Mount Abraham, Otter Valley, U-32 and Montpelier were the last of the eight-man schools. Mount Abe won the last two eight-man titles.
This fall, two schools, Montpelier and Springfield, have had to forfeit games because injuries and other problems struck their programs, which were already struggling with low numbers. In the past three years, Mount St. Joseph has won one game, and has typically lost games by 40 or 50 points. Other teams, like Oxbow and Winooski, have only defeated teams like MSJ, Montpelier, Springfield or each other this fall.
Part of the problem for these programs are common to smaller schools in Vermont right now in all sports: It’s no secret that enrollments are declining, and with the economic times tough more kids are working. Fewer students are coming out for sports. Many schools are dropping JV teams because there are not enough athletes. That issue is worse for football teams, with 22 starting positions.
Otter Valley coach Jim Hill has twice this fall suggested a solution: Instead of looking at the problem from the top down — which teams belong in D-I? — the state’s football coaches instead could be looking at the needs of the schools who are trying to preserve the sport.
Hill says it’s time for a return to four divisions, even if the fourth, as was the case back in the eight-man days, does not field as many teams as the other divisions.
There are difficulties in coming up with an alignment, because many of the schools that have football are the bigger ones. That’s why coaches made the current switch to a 14-team D-I to start with.
It has been suggested it wouldn’t be fair to some D-II schools to force them to compete against larger schools if they were bumped down from D-I. There might be some truth to that, but nor is it fair to ask some of the smaller programs to continue to get their brains beat out, either.
And I would argue the difference between many of the more competitive D-II programs and the less competitive D-I programs is insignificant. Rice’s 2010 team or Fair Haven’s 2011 squad would argue that they could have handled St. Johnsbury, Spaulding or Mount Anthony.
Also, football success has never tracked particularly well with school size. In creating alignments, the football committee has always looked at programs’ numbers and historic success just as much as, if not more than, student population. That should continue to be the case. For example, just because the Vergennes kids have given Mount Abe a lift does not mean the program, despite its obvious progress, is ready to compete against the best of D-II.
How could the divisions look next year?
Let’s start with D-IV: Montpelier, Mount St. Joseph, Oxbow, Springfield and Winooski. Poultney, although competitive in D-III this year, should have the choice to go here. Let’s put them there for now, six teams.
D-III: BFA-Fairfax, Bellows Falls, Mount Abe, Mill River, Otter Valley, U-32, Windsor and Woodstock. Eight teams.
D-II: Burr & Burton, Fair Haven, Lyndon, Milton, Mount Anthony, Mount Mansfield, North Country, Rice, St. Johnsbury and Spaulding. Ten teams. Fair Haven or Milton, whichever has the lower student count, could be given the option of dropping down to create nine-team Divisions II and III.
D-I: BFA-St. Albans, Brattleboro, Burlington, Champlain Valley, Colchester, Essex, Hartford, Middlebury, Rutland and South Burlington. Ten teams.
One last thought: The committee might want to look to a European-style relegation format between the large teams that start in D-II and the bottom teams in D-I. Every two years, the least-competitive D-I team, or two least-competitive teams, must drop to D-II, while the one or two most-competitive large schools in D-II (MAU, MMU, St. J and Spaulding) must move up. Such a rule might spark some extra interest and motivation in those late-season games.
But most importantly, four divisions would help the schools that need it most.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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