As 11-man prep football prepares to kick off one week from Friday night, there is another game in town that is affecting how Illinois High School Association members and their administrators think about 8-man football and the effects it may have long-term on the 11-man game and the playoff structure. The 8-man game is picking up momentum. Going into next week’s opening games there are 16 teams scheduled to compete in 8-man football, which is up 10 from the six in 2018. Those 16 are Bunker Hill, Champaign Judah Christian, North Fulton Cuba Coop, Danville Schlarman, Edwardsville Metro-East Lutheran, Elgin Westminster Christian, Flanagan Cornell-Woodland Coop, Hanover River Ridge, Hebron Alden, Jacksonville Illinois School for the Deaf, Lake Forest Academy, Milford/Cissna Park, Pawnee, Polo, Rockford Christian Life and Washburn-Lowpoint Coop. Milford-Cissna Park won the eight-man state competition last year and is out to defend its title. Champaign Judah Christian is in its second year of competing in 8-man football, with Schlarman and Pawnee participating for the first time.
Fourteen of the 16 are assured of making the 8-man football playoffs. Beyond the obvious difference with the number of players on each side, there are others between the traditional 11 and now 8-man football. A regulation 11-man field is 100 yards long, end zone to end zone, and 53 1/3 yards wide. The 8-man field is 40 yards wide instead of the usual 53 1/3, and still 100 yards long. The offensive team can have five men on the line, with the two ends–and anyone in the backfield, being eligible pass receivers.
Proponents of 8-man football expect the number of schools to reach 30 by next season. But that’s still well below the IHSA’s typical 10 percent threshold of member schools to add a new sport, which would be around 80 for football. “We don’t have a certain number we’re looking for,” said IHSA administrator Sam Knox, who is the former Lincoln athletic director. “We’ll just have to see how quickly eight-man football grows. It may reach a point a few years down the road where our board says it’s time for the IHSA to implement a state series, but I can’t speak for that (now).” Knox admits eight-man football presents the IHSA with uncharted territory. “We’ve never really been down this road before,” he said. “There’s no map to follow, so to speak. To see it grow that quickly is intriguing. It certainly gives those kids who still want to play football a chance to do their thing and play the sport they love to play, just with a smaller roster.”
The IHSA will continue to monitor and seek out input from other states that already have eight-man football as an official sport. Neighboring states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri have played non 11-man football for years. And the planned move in 2021 to district scheduling is the catalyst to the movement to 8-man football from 11. The planned IHSA move to district scheduling has led small-school co-ops still fighting numbers issues to seriously look at 8-man football. The Illinois 8-man Football Association does not have an enrollment cap on the regular season, but the playoffs are limited to schools with 400 or fewer students. The IHSA’s Knox is aware there could be competitive balance concerns moving forward for eight-man if several schools are well above the 400 enrollment, but with a football roster still in the 20s, join the league.
More in this week’s ‘Irish Stew’ In the online and print editions of the Decatur Tribune.