Reaping the benefits

Transition to eight-player football helping local teams remain competitive, keep football tradition, local rivalries

News Photo by Jonny Zawacki Hillman quarterback Kory Henigan (11) outruns a defender during an eight-player football game in Friday’s season opener against Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart Academy at Hillman High School. The Tigers won their first game after transitioning to eight-player football due to low numbers and Hillman’s football program is hoping to keep its winning tradition alive and compete at a high level.

Throughout its history, Hillman has had good football rivalries with many schools in Northeast Michigan. For many years, matchups against schools like Atlanta, Mio and Posen were competitive affairs and beating those teams was a point of pride for coaches, players and fans.

As more teams transition to eight-player football for various reasons, schools like Hillman are finding themselves with fewer options for scheduling games and traditional rivalries are ending.

“The biggest thing I remember is no matter what the records are, it’s always a good game. My senior year, we were the favorites (against Atlanta) and only won (12-7) because of a blocked punt deep in their territory,” Hillman coach Cody Allen said. “Rivalry games are fun because you know your opponents. You play against them since junior high in all sports. I think that develops a bit of animosity towards one another.”

Thankfully for the Tigers, this season marks a return to normalcy despite some big changes. The Tigers made the transition to eight-player football this season and will rekindle rivalries with North Star League foes Posen and Atlanta.

“I think the timing was right for us. A new league was starting to form with some of our former North Star League opponents and it was just a good fit for us,” Allen said. “If we would have waited a few more years, who knows what would have happened or where we would be.”

Reduced-player football in Michigan began in the 1930s and lasted through the 1960s. For many schools around the state and nationwide, reduced-player football, specifically eight-man keeps football going in small communities and the schools that transition to it see many benefits as a result.

Teams that struggle to compete in 11-player football find new life in eight-player football. It allows teams to score more, win more games and have a better shot at making the playoffs while playing against schools of similar size. Nationwide, 32 states have teams competing in eight-player football.

Posen was one of the first schools to turn to the eight-player game in Michigan and transitioned in 2009. The Vikings played just five games total that year and had to forfeit three games due to lack of players.

“In 2009, the 11-man game really wasn’t an option for us. I talked to some other schools that were also low on numbers and started researching and talked to Nate Hampton at (the) MHSAA and he told us that it was something we could start, but they weren’t going to sanction it as a state athletic association body, but we were more than willing to give it a shot,” Posen Athletic Director and former football coach Wayne Karsten said. “I contacted those other schools just to try and get some games in because I knew we wouldn’t have football at all if we didn’t try to do something different.”

The transition wasn’t exactly easy for Posen during that first year as the Vikings had to travel long distances just to get games in, but in the end, it was all worth it. The Vikings were competitive again and after some early struggles, things started to change. The Vikings scored a lot more points and won a lot more games. By their third season of eight-player football the Vikings went 6-3.

“If we wouldn’t have gone to eight-man football–and I give coach Wayne Karsten all the credit in the world on this–we wouldn’t have a football team here. We were in that position along with some other teams in the state where we didn’t have the numbers (and) we went to eight-man,” Posen coach Greg Pietsch said. “It salvaged our team and it salvaged the program and really, essentially in the long run helped our school.”

Local teams like Atlanta and Onaway have seen benefits as well. Atlanta struggled during its last several years of 11-player football, but made the playoffs last season its first season of eight-player football. Onaway went 4-5 in 2014 to finish out 11-man football, but went 5-4 each of the next two years as an eight-player program.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association began sponsoring eight-player football as a sport in 2010 and in 2011, 22 schools competed. Since then the interest in eight-player football has gone up and the number of teams have rapidly increased. Currently there are 66 eight-player Class D football teams in Michigan, separated into 11 different eight-player conferences in the state. The growth of the game has allowed the MHSAA to create more opportunities for eight-player schools as well.

In 2017, the MHSAA decided to split the eight-player playoffs into two divisions based on enrollment size. This allowed 32 teams to make the playoffs–16 in each division–and allowed for two championship games to be played. Both championship games were played last year at the Superior Dome in Marquette on the campus of Northern Michigan University.

The growth of the game has continued this year as eight new eight-player teams will compete during the 2018 season.

Locally, there’s been a big shift as well that’s allowed for easier scheduling. Posen, Atlanta and Hillman will make up a portion of the newly established Midwest Central Michigan 8-Man Conference east division, along with Onaway, Au Gres, Hale, Pellston and Charleton Heston. The West division will consist of defending lower division eight-player state champions Central Lake, Onekama, Suttons Bay, Bellaire, Tri-Unity Christian and Forest Area.

The transition by many local schools given them the extra benefit of continuing or rekindling their football rivalries. In addition to keeping familiar opponents like Au Gres on the schedule, Hillman will play Posen for the first time since 2008 and will play Onaway for the first time since 1996. Atlanta is back on the schedule too after Hillman didn’t play the Huskies for perhaps the first time in program history last season.

With so many teams making the transition to the eight-player game, it is helping teams not only continue a competitive football tradition, but it is also beneficial because it is becoming much easier to schedule and travel.

The opposite is true for Class D schools. Just 22 Class D schools are competing in 11-player football this season, leaving many teams with bye weeks, having to travel long distances just to play or scheduling larger schools just to fill out schedules.

“It’s about the kids and giving them the opportunity to play football and without the eight-man game, the kids wouldn’t have had that chance. It definitely saved football for Posen High School. You think about it, all of the fans that come out to support and kids that play, where would they be on a Friday night? A lot of these schools, football is the lifeblood of the community and the school,” Karsten said. “If you lose football, how many kids transfer out and what does it do for your school? As a coach and as an AD now, you want to do anything you can for the community and the school is our community. If we lose football, we could lose football and what happens to Posen? That’s what it was like all across the state of Michigan. Eight-man football has saved much more than just football for small communities.”