(TNS) It looks like eight-man football is here to stay in Central New York.
It's a trend being felt in a big way here and across other parts of New York State, as declining enrollments and low player turnouts are straining high school football rosters.
Revived last year by Section III as a way to keep struggling small-school teams on the football field, the smaller-side version of traditional 11-man football — popular in the state decades ago before the age of school consolidations — took root quickly.
In just one year, the number of schools playing the eight-man game has nearly doubled in Section III. And the concept is catching on in other parts of the state.
Last week, four teams asked Section III to drop 11-man football in favor of the eight-man version. With just two weeks until the start of the 2018 season, the requests set off a scramble to realign the Class D league and amend schedules that had been set some five months earlier.
"I think it's just the way high school football is going," said Weedsport coach Jon Sgarlata, whose program was one of the four that sent a late petition to play eight-man.
The number of eight-man teams in Section III has climbed to 11, and a 12-team league this fall will include a team from Tupper Lake in the North Country.
"It's going to get a lot bigger than this," added Jason Wait, coach at Bishop Grimes, which went 6-0 last year and won the initial Eight-man Division championship in November. "Soon you're going to have something with a state title."
Section III set up its eight-man league last year, in response to shrinking football rosters at many of its member schools — particularly at the smallest level — Class D.
The league grew to seven teams, including Binghamton Seton from Section IV, and the rest of the state was paying attention.
This year, Sections IV (Southern Tier) and V (Greater Rochester area) have combined to form an eight-team league of their own in eight-man football. In Section IX (Greater Middletown area) all of the seven Class D football schools will play the eight-man game.
"I think we're going to add teams every year. I think it's just going to grow," said Section IV executive director Ben Nelson.
Section IV contributed five teams to the league it formed with Section V, and Nelson said switching to eight-man football is less expensive for schools and has several advantages over combining programs with a neighboring district.
"There are transportation issues, uniform issues, coaching issues and location issues — where are we going to practice and play games," Nelson said.
So far, 29 schools in the state are playing eight-man football, with 11 of them in Section III and most of the others in the Western half of New York.
The four original eight-man schools in Section III — Bishop Grimes, Cooperstown, New York Mills and South Lewis — all battled issues with keeping rosters above the minimun size (16 players) required for the 11-man game.
South Lewis forfeited three games to close its 2015 season due to a lack of players. The Falcons didn't field a team the following year, then began playing eight-man in 2017.
New York Mills also struggled, forfeiting games during the regular season in 2016. Coach Tony Ricco said the eight-man league was a godsend for Mills last year.
"For us, it was great," said 17-year coaching veteran Ricco, whose Marauders advanced to the championship game in the Carrier Dome where it lost, 44-22, to Bishop Grimes in an entertaining finale in the Carrier Dome. "It didn't look any different than 11-man, except there were fewer players on the field."
Wait said Grimes had struggled with numbers for several years while playing in Class D and in the former National Football Foundation league that tried to match struggling programs from different schools but still used an 11-man format.
Coaches said the NFF league helped weaker programs find relative competition but didn't address the issue of low numbers.
"I can pretty much assure you we would not have made it through the (2017) season in 11-man," Wait said of his team.
And it's not just the smallest schools who are turning to eight-man. Three of the teams in this year's Section III league — Altmar-Parish-Williamstown, Pulaski and Sherburne-Earlville — are from Class C-size schools.
"We're not getting the numbers," said A-P-W coach Scott Stanard, whose Rebels went 6-3 and lost to General Brown in the Class C playoff semifinals two seasons ago.
Last season, A-P-W went 2-6 in Class C with its only victories coming over Phoenix and South Jefferson — teams that went a combined 1-16 last year and are now both playing in Section III's new four-team developmental league.
Stanard said he expects to have 19 players on his roster — about the same as last year — which is more than the state minimum of 16 required for 11-man football but not always a realistic number considering inevitable injuries, and the fact that many players might be underclassmen or under-sized for positions on the offensive or defensive line.
A-P-W and Pulaski talked about merging programs for several years, Stanard said, but the Blue Devils had already joined the eight-man league in 2017.
"We knew our numbers would just keep dwindling," said Stanard, an A-P-W alum. "I think everybody wants to keep their own (school) identity."
Don Johnson, who took over the Morrisville-Eaton program this year after six seasons as the offensive coordinator, said the school made the tough decision in mid-week to drop into the eight-man league when early practices yielded only 19 players.
"Basically what I had to tell our boys was, we play eight-man or we don't play," he said.
John Cifonelli, the former Bishop Grimes athletics director who held that job when Section III formed its eight-man league, recalled hearing some complaints when the Cobras decided to go that route.
"I heard from critics, and some parents. It's not real football," said Cifonelli, who still teaches and coaches at the school in East Syracuse. "But it was a huge success, whether we won last year or not."
Section III executive director John Rathbun said the growth and development of eight-man football will continue to be a hot topic in statewide football discussions.
"We still need to talk about what Class D or small-school football will look like down the road," he said.
State rankings for eight-man teams, and the possibility of including eight-man football in the state playoffs are already being discussed.
Not everyone is all in on the concept.
While they all basically support schools turning to eight-man if need be, not all of the area's small-school coaches are eager to join in.
"It's great for certain situations and communities," said Tim Gates, coach at Westmoreland. "I certainly don't want to be critical of schools that are going to eight-man."
But the tradition-rich Bulldogs, winners of six sectional titles (three each in Class C and D) since playoffs started in 1979, have decided to stick it out in 11-man football despite having just 21 players on this year's roster.
"We definitely talked about it," said Gates, whose teams haven't had a winning season since going 7-2 in 2013. "We just decided to do the best we can. We're just going to fight like heck to keep it going through the season."
Steve Louis, who coaches at another tradition-rich program, Onondaga, called the eight-man league an "awesome idea."
But Louis, who has about 25 players on his roster, said the section needs to ensure that all of the teams who switch to eight-man football do it out of competitive necessity.
"I'd get concerned if I start seeing eight-man teams with 22 or 23 kids on the roster," he said.
"But I'm not criticizing (the schools that have changed) either. I want kids to play sports," he said. "I don't know if kids are still coming out (for football) like they did even five years ago."
Brad Keysor, who coached Tully and now leads the combined Southern Hills team that uses players from Tully, LaFayette and Fabius-Pompey, said making the move to eight-man can be a tough call for schools.
"If it's a numbers/safety issue, it's the right move," he said.