FARWELL-- The addition of 8-man football has allowed small Michigan communities to keep the sport alive for their high schoolers.
“8-man has really grown over the last five, six years, or really since 2017-when they switched it to two divisions. It grew to about 66 teams. And now I think we’re over 110 to 112 teams,” Farwell head coach Travis Waddell said.
Farwell is just one of many examples of a community able to keep the sport alive through the 8-player game. Since the change, they’ve seen an increase in interest in the sport, and have recently been able to achieve the school’s best record since 1998.
With the positives for those taking advantage of the 8-player landscape, comes some disadvantages for those in the 11-player small-school divisions 7 and 8.
“Eight-player football’s been important to keep football in many communities. It’s even opened the door for football to return in some communities. So that’s overall been a good thing. We’ve got two divisions now of eight-player and the thing is, over the last almost 10 years, every good thing that we’ve done for eight-player football has really hurt our small school 11-player programs,” Michigan High School Athletics Association Executive Director Mark Uyl said.
As of now, the MHSAA only allows schools with enrollment numbers of 215 or fewer to participate in the 8-man championship played at the “Yooper Dome”.
“When you have an 11-man team, only having 14 or 15 guys on a team that’s tough. That’s Iron Man football, you don’t have backups, you don’t have scout teams to go against. A lot of times, that means you don’t have a JV program and you just have a varsity program,” Waddell said. “So, what 8-man does, is with teams that are smaller, schools that struggle with numbers, it gives them the ability to have a JV program and to develop young players. It gives you the ability to run scout offense and scout defense so that your teams can be better prepared. And overall, your players are just healthier when you have those types of situations.”
Even with all of the advantages 8-man teams in Michigan have experienced, there are still some areas the programs and MHSAA don’t agree upon.
“What our focus with our board is going to be this year is what are some ways that we can better support our division seven and eight 11-player programs? Is there anything that we can do to incentivize maybe some of our bigger schools that are playing eight-player to make the transition back to 11, as their numbers continue to rebound,” Uyl said. “Would we ever, for example, say if your school has 250 or less students, you’ll automatically be in division eight? Would that be appealing for some of our smaller schools to be able to keep playing 11-player? So, those are some things that we’re discussing and looking at. So yes, eight-player has been good, but I really think the group that needs to move to the front of the line for some help, are our division seven and eight 11-player schools.”
As for Farwell, they will continue to put player safety at the forefront of their program.
“We are definitely always looking at opportunities for our student athletes. And going back to 11-man would mean as of right now, the ability to go back to the postseason, but we’re always going to make those decisions based on the health and safety of our players,” the head coach said. “So after each season, myself and my administration here at Farwell would look at what we have from a football program. And if that meant that the best thing for our program was to go back to the 11-man ranks, then we would make that decision at that time. And if it was to stay 8-man, then we would continue to do that.”