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Eight is enough: Schools turn to eight-man football for long-term sustainability

Terry Gray has been coaching football for two decades, but in the last nine months, he has become a student of the sport.

He never has coached an eight-man football game before. He never even has seen an eight-man game before, save for the video clips he has seen on YouTube. But he’ll coach eight-man football for the first time in his career when Frewsburg opens the season Sept. 20 against Pembroke.

Frewsburg had to make a drastic change, in order to sustain the sport at a school where the enrollment is dwindling, coupled with shrinking numbers in football participation. The school and the athletic department announced in March that it will field an eight-man football team this year.

“Class sizes got smaller and as the years progressed, there are less kids in the school, people move out of the town and we’re a school that just keeps getting smaller,” said Gray, whose school is a combined middle school and high school with an enrollment of fewer than 400 students, according to the New York State Education Department.

“People talk about a lot of reasons why participation is down, whether it’s because of concussions or sport-specific play, and that’s a little bit of a factor. The percentage of kids playing football in each class hasn’t changed, but a percentage out of 90 kids in one grade is a lot different than the same percentage out 50 kids in one grade.”

Frewsburg and Maple Grove are the only two Section VI schools that will field eight-man teams this year. Maple Grove decided earlier this month to go to an eight-man schedule. But unlike states like Kansas, Nebraska and California, where eight-man football is part of the fabric of high school sports, this variation of the game isn’t a widespread or a thriving trend in high school football in New York.

The two schools that are transitioning to eight-man football in Section VI are doing it for the long-term survival of the sport at the scholastic level.

“We didn’t do this to become a power in football,” Gray said. “We did this because it is best for Frewsburg football.”

By the numbers

Participation in football isn’t just falling in rural areas. It has become a national trend over the last five years.

The NFHS’ annual High School Athletics Participation Survey found that participation in 11-man football declined by 30,829 -- to 1,006,013 -- the lowest mark since 1,002,734 in the 1999-2000 school year.

Additionally, participation in 11-man football dropped in all but six states (Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Texas and Vermont) and the District of Columbia.

But participation in six-man, eight-man and nine-man football increased nationwide, with the largest increase in participation in eight-man football, from 19,554 boys at 847 schools in 2017-18 to 20,954 boys at 946 schools in 2018-19. Additionally, 115 girls at 49 schools nationwide played eight-man football last year, and 108 at 30 schools played eight-man football in 2017-18.

According to the NFHS survey, 685 boys at 31 schools played eight-man football in New York in 2018-19, up from 95 boys at six schools in 2017-18.

Frewsburg fielded a combined team with Randolph in the last two seasons, when it realized it may not have the numbers to field an 11-man program independently. Randolph was the school in closest proximity to Frewsburg, about 15 miles northeast. But in the merger, Gray saw that travel increased, the number of home games at Frewsburg decreased, and participation numbers continued to drop.

At the end of the 2018-19 season, Frewsburg had to make a change and began researching what steps it could take to sustain football.

Maple Grove coach Justin Hanft said the discussion to field an eight-man program began last season, when coaches and administrators realized participation numbers were going to decrease. New York State Public High School Athletic Association rules require a minimum of 16 healthy players in uniform on game days, and when only 19 players came out for the team on the first day of practice on Aug. 19, Maple Grove had to make a choice: Drop football, or drop to eight-man football.

“We exhausted every angle that we could to stick it out,” Hanft said. “But I needed to make an executive decision, and do it in a way that meant we were playing football this season.”

Combining versus changing

Maple Grove and Frewsburg are the only Section VI schools that field eight-man teams. There are 13 combined football programs in Section VI this year, including Clymer/Sherman/Panama, which enters its fifth year as a merged program. The junior varsity programs merged in 2014, and the varsity program was merged in 2015.

“It came out of necessity,” Clymer/Sherman/Panama coach Ty Harper said of the merger. “We’re three very small, rural school districts that are roughly 15 minutes apart from one another. We didn’t have the numbers to support our own programs anymore.”

Harper said that eight-man football was never considered as an option for the three schools.

Furthermore, Clymer/Sherman/Panama quickly became a small-school power, going 13-0 and winning the Class D championship in November.

To bring together players from three schools, Clymer/Sherman/Panama rotates practices to each school on a weekly basis and rotates location of home games every year between the three schools.

“Our merge is living, breathing proof that if people are unselfish and are willing to sacrifice, and willing to be on a bus for a little extra time every day, merged programs can work,” Harper said. “And you’re still giving your kids the best opportunity to play football. I’m not saying eight-man football isn’t football, in a traditional sense, but I think our kids would prefer to play 11-man football.

“But if it’s a better alternative to eliminating the sport? Absolutely. If that is the absolute only way to do it, I understand.”

High school football coaches in Western New York, in general, want football to succeed at the scholastic level, even with issues that surround the sport, including concussion awareness and prevention, low participation numbers, single-sport specialization and cost.

But some coaches at small schools with stable participation numbers in football harbor a concern that a school with a stable enrollment and participation numbers would choose to play eight-man football – and dominate at that level. Gaming the system, in a way.

In a survey of 41 Section VI football coaches recently conducted by The News, the majority of the coaches were proponents of eight-man football as a means to build or maintain a program. Eleven coaches wrote that they were either against eight-man football or preferred schools hosting 11-man programs or merging programs with other schools.

Ken Stoldt, the Section VI football committee chair, said that while there isn’t an enrollment or participation cap in place as a guideline for eight-man football, there is a drive to make eight-man football equitable, even though the NYSPHSAA does not host an eight-man football state championship.

“There’s a concern over whether if the state gets enough schools to field an eight-man championship, they don’t want a larger school to opt out (of 11-man football) and go to an eight-man program, specifically to win a state championship,” Stoldt said.

Portville coach Josh Brooks said he agrees with the schools moving to eight-man football, as a means for sustainability.

“If we’re here and we’re people who love football, so we would hate to see any school not have a football program,” Brooks said. “Coming from Portville, sometimes our school district and our community can get frustrated, because there are a lot of combined schools that are larger than us, combined with other schools.

“I’d rather see a school go to eight-man than combine with another school.”

But Harper, Clymer/Sherman/Panama’s coach, disagrees.

“Eight-man football should be the absolute last resort,” Harper said. “It took hold on the eastern side of the state because the small schools, logistically, didn’t have anyone they could merge with.”

The alternative? Scrapping football completely.

“If a school drops its program entirely, to try to get it back to 11-man is much more difficult than playing a year of eight-man football,” Stoldt said.

What’s next for Frewsburg, Maple Grove

Players and coaches at Frewsburg and Maple Grove are learning the nuances of playing a game that utilizes three linemen instead of five, requires five players at the line of scrimmage on offense but is played on regulation-sized football field.

They’re studying YouTube videos and evaluating play diagrams of schemes commonly used in eight-man football. They're also preparing to play in games that utilize more space, require more athleticism and can sometimes become higher-scoring affairs.

“Because the eight-man season starts later, it’s allowed us to educate ourselves on the rules, the formations and how that aligns to our eight-man league,” Hanft said. “It’s been a learning curve for all of us, that’s for sure, and from what I’ve seen, it’s a more wide-open game. There’s more space, and you can create more one-on-one matchups.”

Yet Maple Grove’s 11th-hour reclassification to eight-man had a ripple effect on schools in Section VI who had the Red Dragons on their schedules. The Section VI football committee immediately found Section V opponents for the schools that were supposed to face Maple Grove; Section V had a scheduling vacancy after it was announced Aug. 23 that South Seneca/Romulus would not field a team.

Maple Grove and Frewsburg will begin the season Sept. 20, and face each other Oct. 4 at Maple Grove. Each school will play a six-game schedule that includes five games against Section V eight-man opponents.

The coaches are answering questions, too, from parents, players and community members: What players won’t be on the field in an eight-man game? Will I still be able to play college football if I play eight-man football? Are the chances of getting injured higher in eight-man football?

And, will you go back to playing 11-man football?

Both schools have said they will evaluate the feasibility of playing 11-man football after the season.

At the same time, their coaches do not want to see high school football perish at the scholastic level.

“Coaches have seen the probability of football going away,” Gray, the Frewsburg coach, said. “In trying to keep football alive, this is another way to do it.”

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