2017-10-05 / Sports

Number of 8-player Football Teams Increases in EUP

By Kevin R. Hess

Eight-player football, instituted as a division by the Michigan High School Athletic Association in 2009, has become a popular sports program for small schools with declining enrollment, especially in the Upper Peninsula.

In 2011, when the state athletic association hosted its first playoff for the new division, 24 schools took the field with 8-player teams. Six years later, 62 schools will field 8-player teams, up from 52 in 2016, prompting the association to create a second division and a second 16- team playoff.

The rise of 8-player football is directly related to the decline in enrollment at many Michigan schools. According to the Michigan Department of Education, enrollment has decreased statewide every year since the 2002-2003 school year. Enrollment peaked in the early 1970s at 2,182,885. This past year, enrollment decreased to 1,532,225, a decline of 650,000 students in that period.

Since the inception of 8-player playoffs, 57 schools discontinued their 11-player teams, with 44 making the transition to 8-player football. Many schools that have made a change are in rural areas where jobs and populations have decreased quicker than in the rest of the state.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Michigan is the national leader in the number of high schools that are dropping traditional 11-player football. The number of 11-player programs dropped by 16% since 2009, the first year for 8- player football in Michigan. This is more than three times the national average decline over the same period.

This year, there are 555 11-player teams, 84 fewer than 2009. In addition to declining enrollment, schools have seen a dwindling interest in football and rising fears over concussions and head injuries.

Nearly one-fourth of the state’s 8-player teams are in the Upper Peninsula, with 12 of them serving as cooperative programs between two or more schools. Cedarville and DeTour have co-opted, as have Brimley and Paradise, Pickford and Maplewood Baptist Academy.

While the increase in 8-player programs is largely a result of 11- player programs declining, it has also helped some schools to resurrect football programs that have been defunct for years. It allows smaller schools to have varsity and junior varsity teams. For schools that had to combine junior varsity and varsity teams to keep 11-player football alive, there have been concerns over freshman and sophomores being forced to play against more-experienced upperclassmen, rather than having a JV team on which they could compete with others with similar experience and skills.

Scott Barr, head coach for the Cedarville Trojans, and Steve Sawyer, head football coach for the Rudyard Bulldogs, transitioned with their teams from 11-player to 8-player football and said declining enrollment and participation numbers were a major factor in the change.

The Trojans and Bulldogs had experienced a lot of success with the 11-player game, each making frequent trips to the state playoffs. Cedarville was on a run of eight straight playoff appearances when it made the switch. Despite the success, Coach Barr said the declining numbers did not merit continuing with an 11-player program.

“It was a numbers game for us,” he said. “Logistics and scheduling were becoming increasingly more difficult. When you’re fielding teams with 14 kids every year, it’s tough. Making the switch allowed us to maintain the integrity of our program.”

“We would often start the season with just 15 players,” said Coach Sawyer. “Through injuries, illnesses, and ineligibilities, we were struggling to maintain a team by mid-season. The move allowed us to preserve the program and maintain interest.”

Because of the increasing popularity of 8-player football in the Eastern Upper Peninsula and the U.P. in general, Mr. Sawyer said, it was becoming increasingly difficult to schedule games with other 11- player teams and participate in conferences without extensive travel.

With the ever-increasing numbers of 8-player programs, the Bridge Alliance Conference, in which both the Trojans and Bulldogs compete, will disband after this season as teams from schools such as Pellston, Bellaire, Posen, Onaway, and Charlton Heston Academy will form a new conference with schools closer in proximity. That will leave Cedarville, Rudyard, Pickford, Engadine, and Brimley looking for a new conference home.

Both of these issues may confront St. Ignace soon. This year, the Saints are not fielding a junior varsity team owing to declining participation. With many of their EUP neighbors fielding 8-player teams, the Saints must travel farther than most teams in the area for road games. If enrollment and participation continue to decline and the numbers of 8-player programs continue to increase, the Saints may soon find themselves discussing the possibility of making a switch.

The Saints are a class C team, and only class D schools, or schools with an enrollment of 203 or fewer, are eligible to participate in the 8- player playoffs. Of the 62 teams, 59 are eligible for postseason play. Only 26 class D teams still have 11- player programs. Schools from other classes can have 8-player programs, but they cannot participate in the postseason.

For schools like Rudyard, this can present some difficulties, as they are on the borderline of the designation between class D and class C. If they were to be reclassified to class C next year, current rules would not allow them to play in the playoffs.

Coach Sawyer says he would like to see the state association create a ‘buffer zone” instead of a hardline class rating number, so teams that float around the border can have a better idea of their options. The association has said it will look at all options at its annual meeting in May 2018.

There are a few differences in the 8-player game, but many of the rules and strategies are similar. Besides the number of players, the other main difference between the two is the width of the field. Both programs are played on 100-yard fields, but the 8-player field is 40 yards wide as opposed to 53.3 yards for the 11-player game. Philosophically and strategically, coaches say there is little difference between the two games.

“The game plans and strategies are essentially the same,” said Mr. Barr. “The language changes on offense with only three linemen, but it’s still about blocking and doing your job.”

“The game is still about blocking, tackling, ball security, and assignments,” added Mr. Sawyer.

For people who believe that the 8-player game isn’t “real football,” those who coach it say it is often a more athletic game. The biggest difference between the two styles is typically seen on the defensive side of the ball.

In the traditional game, there are three levels of defense – the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary. Defensive safeties in the traditional game are often the last line of defense and fill spaces left open by blitzing linebackers and cornerbacks, or when a receiver beats a cornerback off the line. In the 8-player game, teams do not have the luxury of safeties to cover those gaps. This requires defensive backs to be much more disciplined in coverage, knowing that there is nobody behind them to cover their mistakes.

“The 8-player game requires more accountability,” said Mr. Barr. “The game is more wide open and corners don’t have extra defenders to back them up.”

Coach Sawyer said the switch from 11-player to 8-player football required him to be less aggressive on defense.

“You can’t be as aggressive with only eight players,” he said. “In the traditional game, if you send a player (on a blitz) from the second layer of defense, you have a player from the third layer cover that responsibility without losing the third layer. In 8-player, you don’t really have that ability without turning your defense into one single layer. Players have to be able to tackle in the open field and be disciplined with their responsibilities or things do not work.”

Because the game tends to be more wide-open, it lends itself to more big plays and higher-scoring games. The Trojans are averaging 48 points per game and have scored more than 40 in all four games. The Bulldogs average almost 47 points per game and have scored more than 50 points three times. The only game in which they failed to score 50 was the season opener against the Trojans, which Cedarville won 46-28.

“This game is exceptionally athletic,” said Mr. Barr. “The speed of the game is a lot different.”

He said the speed of the game means that traditionally big offensive and defensive lines are not utilized as much and players who fit that mold may not have the same opportunity to play. On the other hand, he said, players tend to be much more disciplined and better conditioned. Coach Sawyer stated the same.

“I emphasize conditioning more now than I ever have in the past,” he said. “I believe our players are in better physical condition than anyone we play and we take great pride in that. We may not be the biggest team, but we make up for it with our pace of play.”

Community members are not always quick to accept the idea of changing from an 11-player program to an 8-player program, but coaches say they tend to find that the fans quickly adapt and are just as passionate and excited about its teams as they’ve ever been. Coach Sawyer says the biggest advantage of making the switch for Rudyard has been renewing rivalries with neighbor schools.

“We get to play our neighboring schools and have geographic rivalries again,” he said. “It’s nice to play teams that are within 50 miles of us and for the sport to have some relevance in the area in which we live.”

Whether 11-player or 8-player, football is alive and well in the EUP, and the Trojans and Bulldogs are poised to make a deep run in the postseason. The Trojans are 5- 0 and the Bulldogs are 4-1. Both have championship aspirations, but would likely have to go through one another to make it happen.

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This is the longest article

This is the longest article on a school related issue I've seen and it's about football. If only the same of amount of ink were devoted to forced changes or eliminations/cancelations to school's academic and artistic offerings. I feel certain that someday there'll be people commenting "Gee, there used to be a nice school here."

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