St. Philip among growing number of teams joining new MHSAA 8-man football division

St. Philip among growing number of teams joining new MHSAA 8-man football division

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St. Philip among growing number of teams joining new MHSAA 8-man football division

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Football teams are supposed to have 11 players on the field.

Your 11 vs. their 11.

But what happens when your school can barely get 11 players on the field, or the coach is forced to play athletes who aren’t ready to be on the field, just to reach that magic number?

Then you have lost. Not necessarily on the scoreboard, but probably there too. But more importantly, you have lost in creating a good environment for one of the favorite sports at Michigan high schools.

But what if you were allowed to play football with eight players on a side? And you were able to better manage your student-athletes, create a positive experience and be competitive in doing so?

Then you’ve won, in general, and you might also do a lot more winning on the scoreboard.

For many small schools in Michigan, playing 8-man football has been a program-saving solution as the Michigan High School Athletic Association has adopted that style for its member institutions.

In Battle Creek, its smallest school has started 8-man football as St. Philip will compete at that level in MHSAA football play in 2012.

It is the second season for the sport, in what is considered Division 9 when it comes to playoff time, and Class D St. Philip is one of several schools across the state who have decided that eight is enough, when it comes to football.

“We didn’t look at this lightly. We looked at what was best for St. Philip and tried to make the best choice possible,” said St. Philip Athletic Director Vicky Groat. “We have really had a lot of positive reaction with going to 8-man. Sure you are always going to get the die-hard football fan that says 11-man is the only real football, but it’s been a lot more positive than negative.

“It’s better than having to disband the program, which is something nobody wanted.”

Last season, when the MHSAA first made 8-man football available, there were 22 schools that looked to field a team, including Tekonsha, locally. By the time the season ended, 18 of those teams still were playing football and the MHSAA had 16 of those compete in the first 8-man football playoff tournament.

With that as a backdrop, several more teams decided that 8-man football was a good option this season. In 2012, there will be 30 schools playing 8-man football, including Tekonsha again and St. Philip locally.

“Schools looked at last year fairly closely to see if it was going to work. And then they looked at their own dwindling numbers and looked at what they needed to do to continue to have a quality experience in football. It became a natural decision for a lot of teams that first year, but there was a wait and see attitude for what would happen with those first 20 or so schools,” said John Johnson of the MHSAA. “But we’re delighted with how it worked in that first year.”

Carsonville-Port Sanilac won the first state title in 8-man football, earning the crown in the state finals game, played in the Upper Peninsula at the ‘Yooperdome’ on the campus of Northern Michigan. The MHSAA expects to have a 16-team playoff again this year, taking the top 16 teams in 8-man football based on a computer point system – which is different than the current six wins and you are in playoff situation used for 11-man football in the state. The state finals are again scheduled to be in the U.P. with several 8-man teams having a dream of a state title, when just a few years ago they were worried about even fielding a team.

“For the MHSAA, it is about having the quality experience. Quality doesn’t mean wins and losses, quality means being able to go out and being viable and being able to compete,” Johnson said. “That feeling of barely surviving and getting through a football program, that’s the difference between 11-man and 8 man football. Teams with 16 or 18 kids on an entire team were an injury away from disaster.”

That’s the situation St. Philip found itself in last year, when, after dealing with injuries, sometimes had barely 16 or 18 players dressed for a game. And the reality was that the Tigers were using several freshmen just to get to that number.

“It boiled down to numbers. The past couple of years we didn’t have enough kids for football,” Groat said. “Sometimes we would struggle to be able to scrimmage in practice because of numbers. In games, we were dressing 15 or 16 kids. So it boiled down to numbers and we decided playing 8-man football was the best choice for us.”

Ironically, playing 8-man football this season, St. Philip will have its best roster numbers in years. The excitement level at the school, as students realized they could be competitive with the alternative form of football, made for a more enthusiastic football program.

St. Philip will be part of a new conference called the Southern Michigan 8-Man Football League, which will also include Burr Oak, Litchfield, Portland St. Patrick, Tekonsha and Waldron.

“Right from the start, the student body was really excited. They felt we had a chance to play schools our size and be competitive right away,” St. Philip football coach David Downey said. “Excitement and talk of making the playoffs, in I don’t know how many years, was in the halls right away. Kids were excited about 8-man football and it showed in the numbers we had this year. We didn’t have numbers last year and once we announced 8-man football, we had better numbers than we’ve had in years.”

Everything about 8-man football is similar to 11-man football in terms of scoring, except, of course, when it comes to the numbers. Teams need to have five players on the line and generally use one receiver, a running back and a quarterback. Unique to the game is that the the outside player on the line is eligible to catch a pass, no matter what the lineup – for instance, if the center is the last person on one side of the line, he could go out for a pass. And numbers on a jersey are of no consequence, so any player can catch a ball as long as they line up as an eligible receiver.

Another key is the size of the field, as the gridiron is narrower by five yards on each side – so teams have less room to have to be responsible for since they have less players.

In terms of St. Philip, that last rule will be an issue as the Tigers play their home games at Battle Creek Central’s C.W. Post Field, which has field turf and isn’t designed to have new lines painted or chalked on it from game to game.

The number of players on the field and the changes in rules for lining up and eligible receivers, make for an exciting form of the game. For certain teams, it can be a wide-open attack and a high-scoring product.

“At first, I didn’t think it was going to be OK – because we were used to 11-man. Then I started seeing how it was going to work and it seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun,” said St. Philip senior Jon Niland. “I think it will be a lot better for a school like us. We can be a lot more competitive and we have a lot of new players that have come out because they see that’s the case.”

St. Philip is committed to doing 8-man football for the next two seasons. At that point, there will be discussions as to if the program is working as is, or if it’s been built up enough to go back to 11-man football. But for a school with an enrollment of under 140 students, 8-man football might just be the answer for the long haul.

“I see 8-man football growing in the state. As more and more schools leave Division 8, I see a trickle down affect,” Downey said. “Teams in Division 8 will come down to 8-man football and that will bring bigger schools to Division 8 down the road and make that really strong. The smaller schools will find it even harder to compete and therefore even more teams will come to 8-man.”

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