A changing reality

Growth of eight-player football in Northeast Michigan changing perceptions, but presenting challenges too

News Photo by James Andersen Hillman running back Gage Steinke (3) looks for a running lane during the first half of an eight-player football game against Atlanta on Friday at Hillman High School. Since 2009, several Northeast Michigan football programs have switched to eight-player football and the number of eight-player schools in Michigan continues to grow. The growth of eight-player football has saved small-town football in many communities and perceptions of the game are changing. But that growth is also presenting scheduling challenges to 11-player schools in many areas of the state too.

From 1993 to 2013, the Mio football team made the playoffs 18 times, finished with at least six wins per season in all but one year during that stretch and made a state finals appearance in 1997.

In recent years that success seems like a distant memory. Since 2015, Mio has won just four games and has struggled to remain competitive. Mio dressed just 16 players for its opener against Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary last month and forfeited its game against Mendon last week.

As the numbers continue to fall and the struggles continue on the field, Mio has seen the writing on the wall and has already committed to eight-player football for next season.

“Mio’s an old 11-man school, but number one, you’ve got to look at what is reality and number two, you have to look at what is safe for the students,” Mio Athletic Director Jeff Demory said. “As we continue to see (teams like) Posen and Atlanta make the transition, we’re left with the Oscodas and Roscommons on our schedule and it’s become painfully obvious that we need to head to eight-man.”

Mio’s switch to eight-player football represents a new reality for many high school football programs in Michigan. Since the Michigan High School Athletic Association began sponsoring it in 2010, Michigan has seen an significant increase (more than 200 percent) in the number of schools competing in eight-player football.

Twenty one schools played eight-player football in 2010 and 66 schools are playing this season.

Beginning with Posen in 2009, five members of the North Star League have switched to eight-player football and Mio will join them next season. The growth of eight-player football could affect several other Northeast Michigan schools going forward.

Despite the growth of eight-player football in the state, the game remains something of a touchy subject in places where 11-player football is a Friday night tradition. Despite the opportunities it gives many smaller programs, eight-player football is still viewed with a certain degree of skepticism.

Even for programs with a history of success in 11-player football, eight-player football may be the only way to keep football going in many communities. Amid a changing landscape with increasing concern about concussions, declining enrollment and small rosters, eight-player football represents the future of football in many areas of the state, regardless of public perception.

“It’s being (better) received each year. As soon as you come out and watch it get played, (you see that) it’s still football. It’s awesome,” Onaway Athletic Director Marty Mix said. “It’s never going to be a sell to everyone, but, let’s be honest, what is anymore?”

Changing perceptions

For fans used to watching 11-player football, eight-player football can initially be a jarring juxtaposition with fewer players on the field and higher scoring.

Some fans decry eight-player football as not being “not real” and a break from tradition. Others mock the game for its high scoring, labeling it as arena football. Some officials refuse to officiate eight-player games due to their differences from 11-player football. Some coaches and school officials declare they would drop football before seeing their programs switch to eight-player.

Change can be hard to accept, but necessity can change perception. If a program switches to eight-player, that’s the option fans are left if they want to watch local football on a Friday night. If a team is struggling with low roster numbers, the eight-player game suddenly can become a lot more appealing if players still want to play and coaches still want to coach.

“Initially, it was kind of fifty-fifty early on. You had some people who weren’t immediately supportive and you catch the comment of, ‘It’s not real football,'” Mix said of Onaway’s switch in 2015. “But if we’re going to play football, this is what we had to do.”

Success can do a lot to change perception too. During the 2015-16 seasons, fans of Powers North Central delighted in watching a talented group of athletes led by Jason Whitens, win back-to-back eight-player championships before dominating their opponents on the hardwood on the way to back-to-back Class D basketball titles.

Locally that’s been the case too as many local players have lit up the scoreboards and entertained fans while helping to usher in a new era of football for their respective schools.

Posen has made the playoffs three times in nine complete seasons of eight-player football, including an undefeated regular season in 2015. Atlanta made the playoffs in its first season of eight-player. Onaway has had two winning seasons in eight-player football and Hillman, playing its first season of eight-player football, has won its first two games with an athletic group of players.

“If you can win games, people are going to get behind you,” Posen Athletic Director Wayne Karsten said. “That’s what you see at a lot of these schools.”

Tradition and pride can be hard to break with, but for some schools the transition seems effortless. Schools like Deckerville and Crystal Falls Forest Park were perennial playoff teams in 11-player football and they haven’t missed a beat in eight-player football. Deckerville won a title in 2012 and has finished runner-up two other times. Forest Park won a title last year.

“I think a big thing I heard last fall talking with people from Crystal Falls Forest Park (was that) at the end of the day when they won the title (the thinking was that) football is still football,” Geoff Kimmerly, media and content coordinator for the MHSAA, said. “It’s a fun game to watch. Powers showed incredible athleticism and (playing eight-player football) allowed some great athletes to be on display.”

Life on the other side

For all of the positives that have accompanied the growth of eight-man football, locally and around the state, that growth is also affecting the state’s Class D teams.

As recently as two years ago, teams in the North Star League had seven league games on their schedule. This season, bigger NSL schools like Alcona and Rogers City have just five league games scheduled.

The addition of Tawas for football has added another league game for several teams, but the rapidly shrinking pool of league teams has caused some creative scheduling. Both Alcona (a Class C school) and Rogers City have Sault Ste. Marie, a Class B school, on the schedule this year. Alcona also has road contests with Breckenridge and Vermontville Maple Valley, schools that are 145 and 248 miles away respectively.

It’s quite a change from the days when eight-player teams like Posen traveled nearly four hours to play Rock-Mid Peninsula. In 2012, the Vikings traveled more than 1,700 miles to play six road games. This season, Posen will travel more than 800 miles for five road games, but three of those are less than an hour away. By comparison, Alcona will travel nearly 1,000 miles for four road games.

Time will tell what sort of issues Alcona and Rogers City may face going forward, but for other schools, switching to eight-player football may happen sooner rather than later.

Schools such as Climax-Scotts are now one of the few 11-man player football programs in their area, so the Panthers are headed for eight-player football next season. Other schools such as Frankfort and Pittsford might not be too far behind. Football participation in the state has been in gradual decline for the last several years and the loss of a few players or other programs switching could cause some schools to make some tough decisions about the future.

“Football participation is down and for some schools all it takes is a couple players (not coming out for) the team (to cause problems),” Kimmerly said. “What that does is it makes it harder to have JV and freshman programs at schools. I think (numbers) are going to dictate a lot of where we go (in the future).”

Eight-player football may always have its detractors, but it isn’t going away in Michigan. Where it was once seen as a passing fad, met with a skeptic eye, in places like Posen it’s become a point of pride and has been embraced by coaches, fans and players alike.

“I think (fans and players) they were again skeptical about (eight-player) football, but now if you don’t sit and count the players on the field, you don’t realize it’s any different,” Karsten said. “They’re pretty proud of being one of the first schools to transition to eight-man football.”