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Football is Football: Eight and Nine Man Games #BeyondTheKeystone

Written by: on Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

 


This past weekend, I had the opportunity to see three games in three states in three days. Not one of them had 22 players on the field. The growing issues in Pennsylvania and Ohio make this point clear: Something must be done to ensure the game of football survives in every school.

The Midwest had already figured it out. Here, 11-man football might be wishful thinking. Where 8 and 9-man football is increasingly becoming the norm. You can only co-op together so many schools before geography becomes your enemy. In even further remote areas, six-man has taken hold. A hybrid game akin to basketball on a football field. But, the 8- and 9-man games are much closer to the game most fans know and love.

I get it. It’s not ‘real’ football. Many argue that. Many who have never paced the sidelines of an 8- or 9-man game. Sat in the stands on a Friday night. Eating a slice of pizza, drinking a can of pop (or soda for my east coast brethren), watching the spectacle before you. The sights, the sounds.

Let me make one thing clear; This is Football.

The only reason we have 11-men on the field is because of Yale. Original rules called for 15 v. 15. That was the rugby game at the time. It was Yale, who built the Yale bowl, who couldn’t fit the 150 yard by 65 yard wide field into it’s newest campus construction. With the move to the smaller, more manageable field (120×53.3 yards), meant pairing down the number of players. And they settled on 11 v. 11.

So, out here, miles from Yale, in the same spirit of ‘making it work’ we see football with 16 young men on the field. Or 18. It keeps the stadiums in use. The fans in the stands. The lights lit on a Friday night. The students energized and excited for another game night.

It is football.

Co-oping alone can’t cure the problem of shrinking towns and shrinking schools. Pennsylvania is reaching the end of the line when it comes to assembling schools like Lego bricks into a team. Central Clarion County, Union/ACV, Sheffield and Abraxas, etc can’t stem the tide forever.

Even in New York, where tiny schools dot the landscape, co-ops can only do so much. For every CSP, there’s many like Falconer/Cassadaga Valley/Maple Grove just jumbled together in an effort to keep playing. Speaking of which, Maple Grove, having tried 8-man, went to 11-man in the spring season, and tried to return to 8-man but participation was so low they had no choice but to enter an emergency co-op.

Schools like Youngsville, West Middlesex, Mapletown, Sheffield, Bucktail, etc that struggled with numbers. Both in the halls and on the field, may be survived by a more manageable game. Youngsville may be too late to save, but others may be able to keep the hometown pride going a bit longer with some compromise.

But not giving up the game. Because it is Football.

On Thursday night, in northeastern Nebraska, the Pender Pendragons, a small agricultural oasis hosted the Homer Knights. The small Heyne Memorial Field, an amalgamation of football and baseball fields into one, hosted the festivities.

The 8-man game is well acquainted in the home of Arbor Day. Including Pender, having dropped from Class C (11-man) to Class D (8-man) in 2008.

When you watch it, the game doesn’t appear any different. It’s on a slightly smaller field, with slightly fewer players. But, once the game starts, you really don’t notice the difference unless you’re ostensibly looking for it.

They block. They tackle. They throw passes. Run. Score touchdowns. Punt. Same rules. Instead of 100×53.3, it’s 80×40. But the game? Oh, the game is the same.

On Friday night, it was northern South Dakota. My first regular season game in the state. Tiny Ipswich, the Tigers, were hosting North Central, the Thunder. North Central is a co-op between three schools: Eureka, Bowdle, and Edmunds Central in Roscoe.

The game tonight? 9-man. Ipswich is one of the few small towns seemly hanging on to their own non-combined team. In the Dakotas and Minnesota, the game is 9-man. And recently added to it was Wyoming. The rest of the midwest is 8-man. With six-man usually an additional layer added that’s becoming more and more common outside Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. North Dakota and Kansas both have a collection of teams playing 6-man.

What is the difference between 8- and 9-man? Other than the extra player, the major difference is field length. 9-man plays on a 100-yard field. But still keeps the narrower 40 yard width. Though, state to state, these dimensions can be adjusted.

At Ipswich Athletic Complex, the game was a mismatch. North Central struggled to move the ball. While Ipswich ground through their defense relentlessly. Amassing a 42-0 halftime advantage. Which was important, as South Dakota–like New Mexico–has a de facto mercy rule. Running Clock? Sure. They have that when it reaches 35 points in the second half. But, like New Mexico, 50 points wins the game.

There is no ‘garbage time’ as some might call it. You get a 50 point lead, and you win the game. I’ve seen this go both ways previously in games in New Mexico.

Foothill and Floyd played a game of cat-n-mouse with the 50 point margin, before Foothill finally scored to put them over the top and end the game. That night, Manzano raced out to a 49-0 lead over Valley, but Manzano was content to let the Valley squad score against their backups. While the underclassmen got some much needed playing time. After the score, Manzano went immediately for a TD, making it, once again, a 49 point margin. But would purposefully avoid the last TD. Ensuring the kids got some reps before the game concluded.

But, with small schools such as Ipswich, playing time wasn’t the big issue. You play who you have. And Ipswich wasn’t about to needlessly extend the game. Though the third quarter flew by, they did end it late in the third quarter on a pick six.

And on Saturday, was a trip an hour north to Ashley, North Dakota. A small hamlet along the southern border of the state, which gives rise to their co-op nickname: South Border.

Ashley High School and Wishek High School co-op together to form the South Border Mustangs. Though, Wishek are the Badgers, the Ashley Mustangs name is adopted by the co-op. Though home games are shared between the two schools.

Ashley’s field is located just west of the school, along the main east-west route north of the state line: Route 10. The field is lined with trees to the west, with very small bleachers on both sides. Like a lot of the Midwest, the field is ringed by cars and folks standing along a rope line on game day.

This was a state playoff game in 9-man. All the games on the slate scheduled for 2pm on Saturday. The visitors were the Grant County/Flasher Storm, a co-op between the Grant County Coyotes of Elgin and Leipzig, and the Flasher Bulldogs in neighboring Morton County.

The game saw the visitors storm down the field, amassing a 24-8 lead. And a 32-14 halftime lead amid a major injury saw a slight delay as we waited for another ambulance to take its spot along the sideline in case of further issues. But the second half was scoreless. A long drive to start the third quarter ended with an interception into the endzone and the energy that was palpable through the crowd of Mustangs fans had grown uneasy. After that, there was no good drives down the field. As the clock ran unrelenting from the scoreboard.

And just like that. Another game of football had ended. The teams shook hands. Congregated to the opposing endzones. Grant County/Flasher to excitedly prep for next week’s schedule at Hettinger/Scranton, and for South Border to lick their wounds and think of what might have been on a surprisingly warm and bright October afternoon.

The television and radio crews began to disassemble their makeshift dais. The stadium closed up. The fans began to leave. The players, humbled, hurt, happy, or sad, all made their ways from the pockmarked grass lined with white paint.

Because at the end of the day:

Football is Football.

For a full gallery of this weekend’s three games, click HERE.

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