Doing what’s necessary

Declining enrollment, low roster numbers fueling the growth of eight-player football in Northeast Michigan

News File Photo Posen quarterback Travis Sharpe (20) throws a stiff arm against Onaway defender Derick Wregglesworth during a 2015 eight-player football game at Posen High School. Transitioning to eight-player football due to low roster numbers, declining enrollment and many other factors has become a growing trend in Northeast Michigan. Four local teams have transitioned to eight-player football since 2009 and the state has more than 60 schools competing in eight-player football this fall.

On the first day of football practice in 2009, Wayne Karsten faced a serious dilemma.

As he prepared to open his second season coaching the Posen football team, just nine players stood in front of him ready to practice, not even enough to work on drills on one side of the ball.

As the day wore on, the situation became clear to Karsten: do something or risk losing the football program in Posen.

“At that point after that first day of practice, I was on the phone making calls, calling all the teams on our schedule, telling them we weren’t going to have a team this year and then calling teams I knew were thinking about eight-man to see if we could pick up games,” Karsten said.

What followed in the next few months seemed like an anomaly at the time; seen by some as a gimmick and ridiculed for not being “real football.” But Posen’s first season of eight-player football in 2009 was an important moment and whether anyone knew it then or not, the Vikings were innovators who provided a glimpse into the future of local football.

Where Posen’s move was seen as avant garde at the time, it is now becoming the norm in Northeast Michigan. Since 2015 three more local teams–Onaway in 2015, Atlanta in 2017 and Hillman in 2018–have switched to eight-player football. On a larger scale, five teams that compete in the North Star League now play eight-player football.

It’s a trend that’s steadily transforming football in Michigan. In 2010, the first year eight-player football was a sponsored sport, just 21 schools competed. As the 2018 season opened last week, 66 schools were competing in eight-player football.

The reasons for the switch are varied. Some schools, like Posen and Atlanta, have low enrollments and simply don’t have the numbers to field an 11-player team any longer.

Others like Hillman see gradual declining enrollment and transition voluntarily before they’re left with no alternative.

Some schools move to eight-player football because they fall behind competitively in 11-player football and want to be the biggest fish in the pond.

Still others move to eight-player football because many of their opponents have switched over and piecing together an 11-man schedule is becoming increasingly difficult.

Whatever the reason for the transition, one constant holds true for dozens of schools participating: eight-player football keeps tradition going and saves football in their towns.

“We knew we had to do something to save football in these small towns. If we didn’t, if we lose football, what’s going on here in the fall? Not much,” Karsten said. “That was the same in all these other small towns; they had athletes, but they couldn’t field an 11-man team.”

Signs of trouble

From 1999-2004, Posen made the playoffs every season and won four postseason games, even advancing to the regional final in 2004. But in the years that followed, it was clear the Vikings weren’t the same.

Already one of the smallest Class D schools in the state, Posen saw its roster numbers decline steadily. In 2007, then-Posen coach Glenn Budnick had just 16 players ready to suit up for the season opener against Cedarville. Despite the numbers struggles, Posen remained competitive. The Vikings went 3-6, but lost a few very close games.

Posen’s numbers rebounded the next season, but the Vikings’ ability to compete took a dive. Posen went 0-8, scored just 51 points and lost by an average of more than 30 points a game.

Posen’s enrollment has been one of the smallest in the state for years and classes with low numbers didn’t do much to help Posen’s problem.

“Small schools tend to struggle, especially when you’re playing bigger schools and that was where our schedule was at. We were one of the smallest schools playing 11-man football at the time. It’s tough to compete with the Mios, the Cedarvilles, those bigger schools at the top,” Karsten said. “You saw it even when we were winning. We were just surviving on talent, we weren’t surviving with numbers. Our numbers, I think when I started, we might have had teams where we had more than 22, then you get down to where we’re running 14 kids.”

If any team could relate to Posen’s numbers troubles, it was Atlanta. In 2013, the Huskies made the playoffs for the first time in six years with a roster of 24. It seemed like better days lay ahead for the Huskies, but that proved not to be the case.

Atlanta’s enrollment fell below 100 starting in 2013 and from 2014 onward the impact of declining enrollment bore ugly results on the football field. From 2014 to 2016, Atlanta won just once and went winless in 2015 and 2016. In both of those seasons, Atlanta scored less than 100 points and was consistently outgunned and outmanned.

Kids still wanted to play football in Atlanta, but it was tough to keep spirits up when the Huskies were lucky to score a touchdown or two a game, while opponents won by an average of 50 points.

“I (saw) the morale go way down. The kids still wanted to play and wanted to compete, but their heart wasn’t in it as much as it is now,” Atlanta coach Troy Cheedie said. “We played a couple bigger schools that beat us up pretty good and it just knocks it right out of the kids. They don’t want to perform when they’re getting beat like that. I understand that too. They stuck with it and I was proud of them. We finished every game, no matter what the score was and we played as a team.”

Even with reasonable numbers, things can take take a turn quickly. In 2014, Onaway started the season with 17 players, but injuries during the course of the season left the Cardinals limping toward the end of the year despite a 4-5 record. The decision was made to switch to eight-player football to avoid a repeat situation and ensure that Onaway had enough players to compete.

Hillman, which made the playoffs for 12 straight seasons between 2006 and 2017, saw declining enrollment during most of that time and saw the eight-man switch as a way to get ahead of what looked like a coming inevitability.

Making the switch

With so many reasons for a school to switch to eight-player football, what does it take to do it?

As it turns out, not much.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association doesn’t have a deadline for schools to switch from 11-player to eight-player or vice versa, but schools have to send a written notification declaring their intentions of switching.

If a school does decide to switch, the earlier it does, the better off it will be. Running into a situation like Posen’s in 2009 can leave a team scrambling to pick up games. Most schedules are put together at least a year in advance and being late to the party can leave teams empty-handed.

There’s enrollment to consider too. Technically any school can play eight-player football during the regular season, but depending on their enrollment, they might not be eligible for the postseason. To qualify for the eight-player playoffs, a school must be Class D (193 students or fewer this year). It’s frequently been the case that smaller Class C schools switching to eight-man are too big in their first season and are thus ineligible for postseason play.

One exception is if a school was Class D last school year and has moved up to Class C this year. If that happens, a school gets a one-year grace period to remain playoff-eligible.

When Posen switched, only a handful of schools played eight-player football, so the schedule looked very different from the one the Vikings were used to playing. It meant playing road games at places like Cedarville and Owendale-Gagetown and hosting teams like Ann Arbor Eastern Washtenaw Academy and Flint Michigan School For the Deaf. In subsequent years, Posen frequently traveled to the Upper Peninsula to play with several games played at neutral sites.

“That first year, it was kind of exciting because it was a new sport, we were going new places, playing new teams,” Karsten said. “We didn’t really know what to expect. If someone could write a book, that would’ve been the year to write a book.”

Switching to eight-player football can be a new and exciting endeavor for a football program, but it’s not without its challenges. In addition to filling out a schedule, a program must adapt to a different style of football with three fewer players on each side of the field. A program must also deal with changing any negative perceptions of eight-player football among players, coaches and fans in their community.

Most importantly though, eight-player football allows football traditions to continue in places like Posen, Atlanta and Onaway, ensuring that fans, coaches and players will still experience the thrills of Friday nights in the fall.

“Towns are at stake of losing their football traditions and football is still football. You’re still out here doing the same things and it’s still great for our smaller communities,” Geoff Kimmerly, media and content coordinator for the MHSAA, said. “Football makes up a big part of the fabric of smaller towns across the state and this allows many of those small communities to keep football.”

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.