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An open book on 8-man football in Hillsdale County


If there’s any predominant local sentiment about eight-man football since it was approved as an MHSAA sanctioned sport for 2009 a little less than a month ago — it’s definitely a wait-and-see approach.

I wouldn’t say the athletic directors I’ve talked to would call eight-man football the newest four letter word, but to say they are even lukewarm about considering it for their own programs would be like telling you I work for a large metropolitan paper.

Coaches and ADs seemed open to the idea last year when conversations about eight-man football were swirling around meetings and in MHSAA press releases, but now that it’s officially going to be an option all I keep hearing is that the idea in general is good for small schools, “but maybe not ours”.

The truth is I’m still forming an opinion about the viability of the sport in Class D schools throughout the county, but to have an informed conversation or debate about a different variation of Friday Night Lights, everyone needs to be enlightened about what this rising sport is all about and who it’s really for.

First and foremost, the name is self explanatory. Eight-man football takes three players off the field on each side of the ball, traditionally two offensive linemen and a skill player on offense and two defensive backs and a defensive linemen on the other side of the ball.

Fields are still 100 yards in length, but trimmed from 53 1/3 yards to 40 yards in width, to compensate for less players covering the open space.

Coaches from states like Nebraska and Texas, which continue to expand their eight-man football membership pools, say the game is very fast-paced and agility and acceleration often trump weight and sheer strength.

For the 2009-10 academic year only Class D schools will be eligible to implement eight-man football, meaning schools of less than 223 students according to the 2008-09 standards.

An example of what a play might look like in the 8-man game.

An example of what a play might look like in the 8-man game.

In Hillsdale County that means that Waldron (131 students), Litchfield (132), North Adams-Jerome (149) and Camden-Frontier (155) would qualify, while Pittsford (224) was one student over this past school year.

While some schools in the state, especially a handful in the “thumb” and Upper Peninsula,  already have eight-man contests scheduled for the upcoming season, MHSAA playoffs for the sport won’t take flight until 2010.

The MHSAA has indicated that if 20-39 schools take up the sport it will hold a 16-team playoff and if 40-64 eight-man teams pop up then a 32-team playoff will take place.

With the basics outlined, there are dozens of questions already filtering through my mind. Questions that I will seek to find answers to over the next few months and questions that area schools must proactively consider.

My initial reaction is that county residents are often resistant to any sort of change from the status quo and 11-man football is all they know. Most fans grew up playing it, it has always been the style of the beloved pro and college games and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I understand that, but lets consider a few things.

North Adams-Jerome, once a league title contender every year, has just 11 wins the past four seasons, their head coach has admitted he wishes he had more kids who loved the game with the passion he once did, and they have been struggling to get numbers in several sports since the day I took over.

In Litchfield, enrollment continues to dwindle, head coaches don’t stick around and many Friday nights it’s so bad that they don’t even call their score in.

Waldron is an interesting case because they have found a whole new level of success, three straight winning seasons after 11 consecutive losing seasons, but they still have just 131 students and I don’t see an influx of new residents rushing to the town anytime soon.

Camden-Frontier seems to have a stable athletic program right now, and despite a couple of down years on the gridiron former Redskins AD Brad Bohner said he thinks eight-man football “is a good idea, just not for his school right now”.

And I don’t think his mindset is at all unique.

Taking on eight-man football is admitting that you’re as small as your enrollment indicates, and it also means coaches, players and fans have a whole new game to learn, teach and digest.

I understand why these schools want to continue a tradition and hold onto the hope of replicating Pittsford’s magical state title run last decade, but I’m really wondering if they’re going to have a choice.

Remember this —the SCAA is loaded with schools that seemingly fit the eight-man blueprint.

Tekonsha, Burr Oak and Battle Creek St. Phil all have less than 140 students and the first two have been the laughing stock of the conference for years now.

Just imagine them wanting a fresh start in a sport geared toward small schools that just want to compete — it’s not that far fetched.

If even just Tekonsha and Burr Oak switched to the eight-man game that would leave the SCAA Division II with just four teams, meaning only three division opponents would be left on the schedule. That also means more travel dates would have to be looked at to put together eight or nine game schedules and that equals more money.

On the flip-side, if only a few schools here and there take on the challenge of starting an eight-man football program, then what will the travel costs look like?

Will three to four hour bus trips become the norm and if so, can tightening school budgets afford those or will parents be forced to come up with more cash out of their own pockets?

At this point I don’t think anyone really knows and  no one is ready to be the finger that starts the domino effect.

I completely understand the wait-and-see approach at this juncture but I am interested in what Class D football fans think and what types of suggestions they might have to throw out in favor or opposition of this whole new animal.

All I know is people should be much more open to talking about eight-man football around here than they are about consolidation.

Now that’s a four-letter word.

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About rjwalters

I am what you think I am — a journalist. Actually when I was hired at my current job, which by the way is Sports Editor of the Hillsdale Daily News in Hillsdale, Mich., I applied for a position titled "Wordsmith", so at my best I'll call myself a writer attempting to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.

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