The boys of fall more often number eight these days

Football season is here, but it's not the sport many Upper Peninsula high school alumni remember. Amid declining enrollment, football doesn't draw as many players as it once did. That's giving rise to smaller 8-man teams across the state.
Football season is in full swing across the U.P. You can't go out in public without glimpsing some combination of blue-and-maize, green-and-white, green-and-gold, or baby-blue-and-silver. And in schoolyards from Ironwood to St. Ignace, afternoons are devoted to drills, scrimmages and tactical sessions.

For many small Upper Peninsula high schools, and other small districts throughout the state, this annual pastime wouldn't be the same without a modified game known as 8-man football -- in which teams field three fewer players than in the "standard" 11-man game. 

According to MLive, more than 40 Michigan high schools, mostly in the U.P. and northern lower Michigan, participate in 8-man leagues. Many would find it difficult or impossible to field 11-man teams; in a handful of cases, the availability of 8-man has allowed small schools to organize football teams for the first time ever.

Here's a closer look at 8-man football -- and how its rise is impacting kids, parents, schools and communities in the U.P. and beyond.

A different game

In sparsely populated Plains and Western states, 8-man football has been commonplace at small, mostly rural high schools for decades. Though the sport doesn't have a long history in Michigan, it's well-suited for the smaller communities of the U.P. and northern Lower Peninsula, which together contain some of the least populous counties east of the Mississippi.

In Michigan, only Class D schools -- the smallest class -- are eligible to field 8-man teams. There's currently just one 8-man class in the state, though that could change as the sport grows.

In many states, 8-man football is usually played on a smaller field -- 40 yards wide, and often just 80 yards long -- though most teams in Michigan have opted to stick with a 100-yard field with reduced width compared to their 11-man counterparts. With one less eligible receiver and three fewer players per side, the run game tends to be more important. 

"We run the same sorts of practice drills as an 11-man team," says Steve Ostrenga, head coach of Rapid River High School's 8-man football team, "but speed, agility and tackling all come at a premium."

8-man scores tend to be higher, and blowouts can be an issue. For instance, Rapid River beat Brimley 60-0, and Engadine 58-18, last year. But Ostrenga is quick to point out that there are plenty of close games, too: Two of this season's first three games were decided by two-touchdown margins.

Why 8-man football?

"Honestly, I wasn't sure I wanted to make the switch to 8-man," says Ostrenga, citing worries about the faster pace of play, different formations and other "unknowns."

But it eventually became clear that 8-man was the right choice. Rapid River struggled through several losing seasons (including some one- and two-win years) as enrollment ticked down and the 11-man football team shrank perilously close to oblivion. During the last year of Rapid River's 11-man program, the school had just 13 kids on the roster.

For Class D schools on the cusp of 11-man viability, a year with such a super-thin roster typically forces the issue. "At that point, you're playing 'Iron Man football,' and it's just not safe anymore," says Ostrenga. If a player is injured on the field -- or just needs a break to catch their breath -- there might be just a handful of subs to relieve him.

"With 8-man, you're playing schools more your size," says Ostrenga.

That nicely summarizes the reasoning behind Charlton Heston Academy's decision to field an 8-man team. The recently opened charter school, located in a disused elementary school near the center of the small Roscommon County town of Saint Helen, has been adding a grade every year; it'll finally reach K-12 status for the 2016-17 school year. Its first 8-man team was basically a JV squad, and simply wouldn't have been competitive in any 11-man division.

"11-man football just wouldn't have been fair for us," says David Patterson, Charlton Heston Academy's superintendent.

8-man also allows smaller schools to field JV squads comprised of younger, less massive kids. That's a huge safety benefit. Plus, fewer players on the field means more subs overall -- another safety boon, particularly on hot days.

And as a team sport that requires hours of daily practice and unwavering discipline, 8-man football is great preparation for a competitive modern economy -- particularly when the alternative is no football at all.

"Between class, practice and travel time in between, our players are spending 12 hours a day in a structured environment [during the football season]," says Patterson. "That's what kids need to get prepared for the world."

Giving communities something to root for

Perhaps the biggest benefit of 8-man football, though, is its positive impact on students, parents and communities. In some cases, the impact is truly transformative: The Michigan School for the Deaf, located in Flint, took advantage of an 8-man league in its area to start the school's first football program in decades -- creating a unique opportunity for its hearing-impaired students and close-knit parent community.

Charlton Heston's 8-man team has been huge for the community as well, which is especially surprising given the academy's limited history. Patterson, himself a former pro soccer player, chalks this up to an unusual concentration of high-achieving collegiate and professional athletes with roots in the area.

"Lots of successful athletes who've graduated [from area schools] are returning to the community, having kids and giving back," he says. They're providing financial and logistical support for a raft of pending athletic projects, such as the construction of a new gym and the addition of bowling, cross-country running, wrestling and other sports.

8-man football's positive community effects are plainly visible at Rapid River. Though Ostrenga and athletic director Rick Pepin are quick to point out that parents continued to support the program during the waning days of 11-man, they don't deny that Rapid River's 8-man success has boosted the program's visibility and reputation.

"We have a winning record and the seats are full every week," says Ostrenga.

To be fair, football (whether 8- or 11-man) isn't the only non-hockey high school sport that draws crowds in the U.P. and northern lower Michigan. At smaller schools like Rapid River, where many athletes participate in multiple sports, the athletic department's disparate teams view one another as collaborators in the school's success, not competitors for talent. Collectively, they aim to give kids more athletic opportunities in their own backyards, while fostering local pride among parents and community members.

"Every sport that you can hold onto is important," says Ostrenga. "Having a team to root for is so important to the community's identity."

Challenges for 8-man schools

But even successful 8-man programs face challenges. One of the biggest, particularly in the sparsely populated U.P., is geography. Ostrenga's team plays division opponents as far away as Ontonagon, a nearly three-hour drive each way in good conditions. Charlton Heston has crisscrossed the northern half of the Lower Peninsula in search of opponents, too. The addition of more 8-man teams throughout rural Michigan helps, but the issue likely won't disappear completely.

There's also the matter of adequate facilities. Schools starting football programs for the first time often lack proper playing fields and practice areas. Charlton Heston's practice and game field, for instance, is in Grayling, about 30 miles from the school; according to Patterson, a land swap with the Michigan DNR should clear the way for the construction of a more proximate field next year.

School size is a problem, too. According to Ostrenga, some 8-man schools have just 80 or 90 students total, while others have as many as 200. Naturally, larger schools can field larger teams -- a potentially unfair advantage. During its first year, Charlton Heston had a similar problem -- "Our 9th and 10th graders were playing much larger teams that had just recently switched from 11 to 8-man," says Patterson.

To address this issue,  the Michigan High School Athletics Association may eventually split the current 8-man division into two classes or divisions, ensuring that more games stay competitive for longer.

And as 8-man continues to gain favor across Michigan, the association is considering expanding the current championship tournament from four to five weeks, giving additional communities an opportunity to participate.

In some cases, 8-man programs become victims of their own success. Though the rise of 8-man football in Michigan is a clear win for smaller high schools, some successful schools are considering bucking the trend and switching from 8-man to 11-man. According to David Patterson, Charlton Heston may move up to 11-man once the school gets all four high school grades in place and begins building its football program in earnest.

"There are a lot of practical considerations involved in the switch to 11-man," says Patterson, including submitting a formal request to the state, investing in a bigger field, hiring additional staff and purchasing more equipment. On the other hand, 11-man provides a better foundation for athletes interested in competing in college and beyond, as many promising kids from Charlton Heston's corner of northern lower Michigan do. 

Ultimately, the decision to switch from 11-man to 8-man, stay with 11-man even as enrollment declines, or -- less often -- to switch from 8-man to 11-man, turns on factors unique to each school and community. What works in Roscommon or Flint might not work in Rapid River, and vice versa.

"Some schools that seem better suited for 8-man do fine at 11-man, and some schools still play 11-man when they really should be at 8-man," says Ostrenga. "In the end, you have to make the choice that fits your school and supports the community."
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