High school football: Eight is enough

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

 

Rincon Valley Christian has a sophomore lineman, Jacob Hicks, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs approximately 280 pounds. At a larger school, Hicks would be groomed as a classic left tackle. He doesn’t play that position for the Eagles — because they don’t have a left tackle.

RVC is one of seven teams that has banded together in a new league, the North Central League III, that exclusively plays eight-man football.
“During chalk talk, I’m used to drawing 11 guys up there,” Rincon Valley Christian coach Brad Rickard said. “At first, I was like, ‘OK, where’s my slot receiver? Oh, I don’t have a slot receiver.’”

Eight-man football is still something of a curiosity in the Redwood Empire, but it is not a recent innovation. The game originated in Nebraska during the Depression and has since spread to at least 32 states. According to a Sports Illustrated story published in August, the number of schools sanctioned to play with fewer than 11 at a time (there are also six- and nine-man versions) has increased from 1,132 to 1,447 since 2004.

Eight-man football has produced a surprising number of NFL players, including 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam, former Nebraska offensive lineman Dean Steinkuhler, the late Gaines Adams and current Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway. There is even a semipro league in Texas, the American Eightman Football League, with teams like the Mid-Cities Militia and the Texas TakeOver.

The reason for eight-man’s growing popularity at the high school level is simple: manpower.
None of the seven schools in the NCL III — Anderson Valley, Laytonville, Mendocino, Point Arena, Potter Valley, Rincon Valley Christian and Round Valley — has an enrollment of larger than 186. Potter Valley has fewer than 100 students. Figure half of those kids are boys, and that not every boy wants to suit up for football (especially as it coincides with soccer season), and you can see why Anderson Valley currently has an active roster of 17, while RVC has 16. Point Arena had 14 players, but recently brought up four kids from the junior varsity because its final two opponents don’t have a JV team.

Numbers like that make 11-man football a challenge.
Ask Robert Pinoli, the athletic director at Anderson Valley. Two years ago, the Panthers went 4-4 but lost star back Michael Blackburn to a broken leg in their final regular-season game. They applied for the North Coast Section Division 5 playoffs anyway, and were accepted. Then two other kids got hurt in practice, and Anderson Valley had to forfeit to Hoopa Valley.

Forfeits have, in fact, been an all-too-common aspect of small-school Coastal Mountain Conference football in recent years. Some schools have even dropped their football programs for short periods, unable to field a team. Obviously, fielding eight kids is slightly less of a challenge than fielding 11.
Not that everyone immediately embraced eight-man football in the CMC. In Boonville, some parents were angry enough to denounce the proposal at school board meetings for Anderson Valley High.

“They didn’t want us to be swept under the rug,” Panthers coach John Toohey said. “We’ve got a town full of guys who wanted to play up, not down.”
Toohey also was wary of the move. He didn’t want his players to feel isolated from the wider football world. He has since found that, because eight-man ball levels the playing field and allows some smaller programs to excel, it actually connects them to big-time football more than it disconnects them.

“The main thing is the kids involved are having a great time,” Pinoli said. “It’s still football. They still hit you.”
It didn’t take long to win over the fans, either. Eight-man football is played on a smaller field — 80 yards long, 40 yards wide — but the action still winds up being less cluttered. That leads to wide-open offense and more big plays (and, on average, longer games). Check out some of the scores from this season:

Anderson Valley 76, Laytonville 52
Anderson Valley 58, Potter Valley 47
Potter Valley 62, Laytonville 54.

There aren’t any walls abutting the field, but it sure sounds like the Arena Football League.

“I’ve seen more big plays than I’ve seen in my life this year,” Point Arena coach Don “Tuffy” Greene said. “If a guy makes a two-foot error, it’s done. If a good runner starts outside and cuts back, there’s no offside linebacker to cover.”
The rules are pretty much the same as standard football, with one notable difference. In 11-man ball, the offense must have seven players on the line of scrimmage. In the eight-man version, it’s five on the line.

Some coaches respond by clustering a five-man line, but with pass-eligible tight ends replacing the offensive tackles. Others split their ends wide and go with a three-man offensive line. Either way, you can go with one running back, two or an empty set behind the quarterback.

The defensive alignment largely winds up being a reaction to the offensive set, but a fairly standard look might be three defensive linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and a safety.
“On defense, it always seems like you’re a man short,” said Toohey, who played 11-man football on a 14-player roster when he was a senior at Anderson Valley a decade ago. “Either way, you’re going to give up the deep middle or the edges.”

On both sides of the ball, a smaller squad means less opportunity to hide a weak player, and even a small mistake can lead to a huge play. So fundamentals are even more important in eight-man football. So is conditioning.

Despite its competitive games and pinball scoring this season, the NCL III is lacking one thing: a playoff system. The Northern and Southern sections both have eight-man playoff tournaments. The NCS doesn’t, though commissioner Gil Lemmon, a big supporter of eight-man football, has begun looking into the possibility of combining with other sections like the Sac-Joaquin or the Central Coast to organize an eight-man bracket.

“Once we’re set up for three or four years, a small team like Point Arena might be able to go to the NorCal finals,” Greene said. “That would be very cool.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.