Football

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High Schools Saving Football with Eight-Player Teams, Leagues

30 Oct, 2019

By: Michael Popke

With participation in 11-player high school football dropping by almost 31,000 between 2017 and 2018 — the lowest mark since 1999 — athletic programs around the country are making the switch to the less-traditional but often more practical game of eight-player football.

In fact, smaller football teams that struggle to field enough players to compete effectively against teams with larger rosters are hoping eight turns out to be great. 

Toledo Christian and Stryker high schools in northern Ohio, for example, recently formed the foundation of the Northern 8 Football Conference, with other schools also expressing interest in joining. The conference could be 10 teams strong by early 2020, according to The Blade.

During a four-hour organizational meeting in October, representatives from the two inaugural schools agreed to a “long-term commitment” and discussed such key components as rules, all-conference honors and awards, scheduling, a rough draft for conference bylaws and an administrative hierarchy. They also agreed that new members would pay a $4,000 fee to join, as well as make a minimum commitment of two years to the Northern 8. The deadline for potential new member schools to join is March 6, 2020.

Meanwhile, St. Mary Central Catholic High School in Sandusky, Ohio, hadn’t played a football game since Oct. 13, 2018. But its football team suited up for the school’s first eight-player game in September, and head coach Toby Notestine couldn’t have been happier.

“There’s just a lot of satisfaction in the fact that, you know what, we’re playing football,” he told the Sandusky Register.

The fundamentals of eight-player football are not much different than those of its 11-player counterpart, although the game is played on a shorter and narrower field (usually 80 yards by 40 yards). Five players are required on the line of scrimmage, and all of them are eligible receivers. Most play both offense and defense, and some also are on special teams. The game emphasizes speed, passing and scoring, and proponents have long claimed that eight-player football requires greater athleticism than the 11-player version.

That said, the perception of 11-player football remains vastly superior to that of the eight-player game — a fact not lost on some players.

“At the beginning of the year when we got the news, it was a little discouraging,” James Moore, a quarterback and tight end for Millbrook (N.Y.) High School, told the Poughkeepsie Journal after his team won their first game in a reduced-player football league, 60-34, over Ellenville (N.Y.) High School. “But once we started practicing, I started to realize it’s not that different. It’s still football.”

The number of participants in eight-player high school football — both boys and girls — has slowly increased since 2015, topping more than 21,000 in 2018, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In fact, participation in six-player, eight-player and nine-player gained 156 schools and 1,594 participants nationwide, with the largest increase in boys 8-player football from 19,554 to 20,954.

“The survey certainly confirms that schools are not dropping the sport of football, which is great news,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “Certainly, we are concerned about the reduction in the number of boys involved in the 11-player game but are thrilled that states are finding other options by starting six-player or eight-player football in situations where the numbers have declined.”

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