Eight-man football returns in Central NY

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • September 18, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Eight-man football is back on the high school gridiron in New York.

After an absence of 35 years or more, seven schools in the New York State High School Public Athletic Association's Section III in Central New York are warming up for a five-regular-game season that's scheduled to culminate with a Nov. 4 championship at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.

"We're pretty excited about it," said Jim Brophy, athletic director in Cooperstown. "It's real football. It's just that there are fewer players on the field."

Cooperstown was among a handful of smaller Section III schools where this year's high school program had been in doubt until Brophy and other coaches started to consider fielding varsity teams with fewer than the traditional 11 players on the field.

The idea first took root with four schools: Cooperstown, Bishop Grimes in East Syracuse, South Lewis and New York Mills. But, as practice seasons got underway in August, more schools with sparse player turnout asked to join. The schedule was reworked, and Seton Catholic of Binghamton, Pulaski and Oriskany also will now play in the new division.

Without this option, said Section III Executive Director John Rathbun, it's unclear whether any of the schools would have been able to field varsity teams this year - and it's likely none of them could have been competitive in 11-man play against schools with larger rosters.

"Our overall goal was to save opportunities for our student athletes," Rathbun said. "We were afraid we were going to lose football in some of these communities."

Previous strategies for dealing with declining enrollment and player turnout, including merged teams of players from multiple districts and a National Football Foundation league last year for struggling small- school programs, had played out as far as they could, Rathbun said.

Brophy, who coached an eight-man team at Edmeston in Otsego County in the late 1970s, tossed out the eight-man idea and drew some interest, particularly among coaches who had experience with the game.

Cooperstown football coach Joe Pestar played the 11-man version as a student in Richfield Springs in the 1970s, but he recalls a junior varsity scrimmage with Owen D. Young in Van Hormesville that introduced him to the eight-player format.

"I remember it was a fast game, and it was different for us," he said, but there was no doubt that it was football. "It's blocking and tackling. That's still the same."

While it is a novelty in New York, eight-man squads are common in many Mid-western and Southern states. The field may be narrowed or shortened (or both) for versions with fewer players, but Section III's plan for this year is to retain the same dimensions (100 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide) normally used for 11-man play, Rathbun said.

For now, athletic officials want to spare schools the cost and hassle of re-marking their fields, Rathbun said, but that could change if schools and communities embrace the new player configuration and if issues emerge with the wider field.

"We'll play it by ear," he said.

The main argument for a narrower and/or shorter field is the sheer size of the territory to be covered with fewer players on a traditional-size field. Pestar and assistant coach Bruce Andrews are emphasizing endurance and conditioning more than usual as their players train this year, and they are making some strategic modifications, as well.

"It's going to be a wide-open game and there are going to be a lot of touchdowns scored," Pestar predicted. "Luckily, I have some speed."

"I liken it to playing 3-on-3 full-court basketball," Andrews said.

Athletic officials say the eight-man formation should reduce the risk that schools would need to suspend play in mid-season. Even if they started with the minimum roster for 11-man play, injuries and illnesses easily could push them below that threshold. With coaches also mindful of recent concussion protocols, players can be off the field for extended stretches, even if it turns out that a player did not sustain an injury.

"The concussion protocols are a good thing, but it takes kids out for a while," Pestar said. "We don't mess with that."

At a recent practice, Cooperstown's players were diving into their revised training regimen.

Owen Kennedy and Julietta Ford, both 17, participate in other sports. But they said football holds a special appeal and they are thankful they didn't lose the opportunity to play as seniors.

"I love football so much that I always expect enough people to come out," said Kennedy. "I love 11-man football, too, but eight-man is what we have this year. Football's football."

Kennedy, who typically plays tight end or wing on offense and defensive end or inside linebacker on defense, said he's enjoying learning the quirks of playing with a smaller squad.

"It's a whole lot faster, and it's a lot more of a mental game," he said. "You have to understand a lot more of the fundamentals to have any success. With a smaller line, there's so much more that can happen, and it narrows your margin for error."

Ford, a wide receiver and the only girl on the team, acknowledges she knew little about the rules or strategy of the game before she started playing as a sophomore. But she relished every chance to see her older brother play (she wears his old number, 80), and she saw high school as her last opportunity to try the sport.

"When else am I going to be able to play football?" she said.

The 22 players on Cooperstown's roster this year include two from Cherry Valley-Springfield, a district formed by a merger of two rivals in the old eight-man Tri-Valley League, and three from the neighboring Milford district.

The plan to bring back eight-man play has inspired a buzz among former Tri-Valley League players in communities where standout athletes, legendary coaches and fierce football rivalries are remembered keenly.

While easily accessible records are sparse, Brophy can quickly recall at least 10 districts that sustained proud and competitive eight-man programs for decades. Several of the districts have since merged with one another, and the last of the former Tri-Valley League schools dropped football in the late 1970s or early 1980s in favor of boys' soccer.

Dan Collins, a 1977 graduate of Owen D. Young Central, played for longtime winning coach Chuck Schalk on one of the last teams the school fielded.

He was not, he says, a star player, and he spent little game time on the field - his athletic abilities seemed better suited to baseball and basketball. Nonetheless, he treasures the football memories.

"It feels like more of a team sport," Collins said. "In football, you have to rely on your teammates for blocking, for getting open so you can lay that pass on them. Everybody had their job, and Coach Schalk made sure everybody knew their job.

"It was a very good experience. I would not have traded it for the world," Collins said.

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