Marcus Grove

Allegany-Limestone head coach Marcus Grove

Allegany-Limestone saw the dip in numbers on the horizon.

The Gators played the 2022 high school football season with 26 players to start the year, a relatively healthy figure for small school programs like A-L’s. But of those 26, 19 were seniors set to graduate this summer. A-L’s coaches anticipated eight members of the modified team moving up to play varsity and a few more kids indicated they would play next year, but that only brought the Gators to 18 or 19, coach Marcus Grove said.

With the state rule mandating teams have 16 healthy and available players to play an 11-man football game, A-L’s margins looked thin for 2023.

“With that being known, kind of having the mindset that we weren’t going to see a kid excuse himself from the team for personal reasons or from not being able to finish the season or injury, to get through that season without losing two or more kids, we saw that as pretty unlikely,” Grove said.

That led A-L’s coaches to meet with athletic director Jon Luce to discuss their options for next fall, boiling down to playing 11-man football with a dangerously thin roster, seeking a merger with a nearby school district or downshifting to eight-man football.

After an assessment, including with players, A-L opted for eight-man this fall at the varsity level. This week, A-L received official acceptance into Section 5’s 8-Man league, alongside Section 6’s other such team, Frewsburg.

“We’re pretty proud to be Allegany-Limestone, we want to be Allegany-Limestone,” Grove said of the decision. “A pretty big contributing factor in not going towards a merger is that we wanted to keep our sense of identity for our kids. We’ve seen mergers across other sports at our school: our wrestling team goes with Olean, our swimming team, our indoor track team merges with a couple different schools. But the way we kind of looked at that as a coaching staff is those sports that are merged are more of an individual sport and football is a team sport, so we wanted to try to keep our identity, and the few avenues that we explored, our identity wasn’t really going to be kept.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what us coaches want to do, it’s for the kids. We sat down with kids and we put all the options on the board for them, we showed them where our numbers were, we said we can go 11-man football but here’s what you have; we can go Allegany-Limestone and merge with somebody but we’re not going to be Allegany-Limestone anymore, most likely the school that we merge with is going to be the host school and you won’t be the Gators; and then the third option was, ’Hey, we can try this eight-man football, there’s no guarantees we get into the Section 5 league but we can apply for it, that way we guarantee staying as Allegany-Limestone football.’”

AFTER WINTER break, Grove’s seniors came back with a unanimous choice: go to eight-man and continue as A-L.

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In the meantime, as A-L applied for entry into Section 5’s league, it held an informational meeting for players and parents to go over the numbers and direction for the program. A-L will continue 11-man football at the modified level and Grove hopes keeping stronger numbers in seventh, eighth and ninth grade could lead to an eventual return to 11-man.

“As far as the football mindset of things, our kids are pretty excited,” he said. “I think it was important, giving them a little say in the decision, it allowed them to carry some weight, that this program is theirs. Ultimately, it is their program, we’re just there to help them run it. And from there, the excitement of eight-man football was something new, something different.

“A lot of the kids are looking up YouTube videos and seeing Bolivar-Richburg play Red Jacket and some of these new schools that we’ll be playing, watching some of that film online and kind of getting an idea for it. I think the excitement level of something being new is really high among the kids that we have coming back, and it’s definitely exciting but there’s always going to be challenges and learning curves with anything new that you do.”

A-L will be the third Big 30 team to switch to eight-man, following its new league mates Wellsville and B-R.

“What we found is, the only true difference is that there’s eight guys on the field versus 11,” he said. “You have to have five guys on a line of scrimmage at all times. We were looking at stuff like that, trying to get familiar with the rulebook and then from there we were starting to develop, where do we want to go offensively and defensively?”

Grove had an optimistic outlook on the A-L program after settling in for a transition for the immediate future.

“Could we have stayed 11-man football? Yes, but we would have had to move up our entire freshman class who are just 13-, 14-year-olds that would be competing against some 17-year-olds who are fully grown, full-strength,” he said. “Just safety-wise it wasn’t a smart choice for us, so trying to play this sport at a competitive but also safe level, with safety being the bigger concern, was our biggest talking point through this entire situation.

“But I think we’re all happy with the decision that was made, we’re all happy with the outcome that has come and I think we’re all excited to take this journey on to eight-man football and see what it holds for us.”

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