For smaller schools looking to stay in football, eight is enough
With high schools throughout Western New York now into their fall sports schedules, some smaller districts which have historically struggled to recruit football players have turned to a different format, eight-man football, to keep their players in the game.
It's an option many districts are adopting and embracing, according to Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.
"I think we're going to see this become more and more popular with the smaller schools who are either losing enrollment or unfortunately losing participaton numbers in the sport of football," he said.
Among them is the Oakfield-Alabama-Elba program, which is debuting its eight-man team this season. When WBFO attended a recent practice, the numbers were immediately noticeable. There were no more than 20 players running drills. That was the entire roster.
"This was brought to us back in February by Section V," said OAE head coach Mike Cintorino, referring to the organization overseeing varsity sports in several counties east of Buffalo including Genesee County. "It's really been billed as the future of small school football.
"We've always kind of teetered with numbers in the mid 20s and this year we came out and it was below the 20s. So, it was something we ended up having to turn to."
Advocates for the game say it is still real football. The rules are generally the same. It's tackle football, but with two fewer linemen and one less back or receiver. In some states, the field dimensions are adjusted downward to account for fewer players but in New York State, eight-man teams will play on the same dimensions as traditional 11-man teams.
While there is always an injury risk, Cintorino says one of the most-feared injuries in the game - concussions - are less likely in the eight-man format.
"With taking the amount of linemen off the field, that's where a lot of the injuries happen, right in the trenches," he said. "When you lessen the likelihood of that happening, the injuries do tend to go down. That's what the research has shown."
By opening up more room, there's a greater need for players to learn how to tackle properly, Cintorino added. There's more emphasis on speed in the eight-man format, as the players have learned.
"I think you've got to be able to do a lot more," said Peyton Yasses, a sophomore playing with OAE. "Cover a lot more space, be a lot faster, be more in shape because there's more room to cover. You've got to be able to play everywhere."
The more wide-open playing field, advocates say, creates a more offensive-minded and, as Zayas suggests, more entertaining game. He explained that before moving to New York State, he worked in New Mexico. The eight-man game is played there and it was upon seeing the game, he was hooked.
"It is a fun game to watch," he said. "It's a lot of offense. It's just an enteraining game to watch. I think schools would be very wise, if they're having trouble maintaining the game of 11-man football, to certainly look at the eight-man game."
Other schools in the region that have adopted eight-man teams include Holley (Orleans County), Marcus Whitman (Ontario and Yates Counties) and Finney Northstar Christian Academy (Monroe County).