Traip Academy of Kittery dropped the remainder of its varsity football schedule in September because of a roster size that dipped into the low teens, but the Rangers never lost their enthusiasm for the sport.

Traip opted to play a junior varsity schedule instead, suiting up 13 players for its final game last week against Kennebunk. Twice the Rangers played JV games with just 12 players.

“You have kids who want to play,” said head coach Ed McDonough, “but the numbers are limiting.”

The dilemma is not limited to Traip, which became the sixth Maine high school in as many years to drop varsity football because it lacked enough players to compete safely and remain competitive. Several other schools on Traip’s original varsity schedule this fall also struggled with small rosters: Boothbay Region at 25, Telstar (21) and Camden Hills (20).

Given that trend, officials and coaches in Maine say it may be time to experiment with eight-man football, a stripped-down version of the sport increasingly popular among rural schools in the Midwest.

“It’s something folks ought to consider,” McDonough said. “It’s still blocking and tackling. For small schools with kids who really enjoy the game, this may be it.”

Jack Cosgrove, former head coach at the University of Maine, first heard about the eight-man game from his predecessor, Kirk Ferentz, now coaching at the University of Iowa.

Ferentz “used to talk about how popular eight-man football is in the Midwest,” Cosgrove said. “I started to think, would that work here? Is that worth investigating?”

Eight-man football is played without two interior linemen and one back found in traditional football. Fields are typically 120 feet wide instead of 160 feet, while the length can remain 100 yards or be reduced to 80.

A key benefit, obviously, is that the sport can be played with fewer participants. Twenty-two players is the minimum required for scrimmaging 11-on-11 in practice, but the same number yields a depth chart practically three spots deep in the eight-man game. The Maine Principals’ Association has no minimum requirement for 11-man football rosters, but recommends having at least 20 players.

Across the country, 841 schools in 17 states offered the eight-man version last fall, according to data compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Nebraska (120 teams) and Kansas (111) led the way at a time when participation in 11-player football is on the decline.

Over the past seven years, participation in high school football is down 4.5 percent nationally and 6.9 percent in Maine. Overall enrollment at Maine high schools declined 7.9 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to MPA data.

Michigan, which had only eight schools playing eight-man football in 2009, recently expanded into two divisions for the 61 schools now offering the slimmed-down version. By comparison, the state has 555 schools playing traditional football, down 84 from eight years ago.

Of course, Michigan is also the easternmost state with eight-man football. Vermont experimented with it a while back but abandoned the effort after the 2004 season because it failed to catch on.

Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the MPA, has floated the eight-man idea. He thinks it makes sense for Maine’s smaller schools, but recent surveys sent to Maine schools showed little interest in eight-man football. Only four or five schools appeared willing to try.

“We had been banking on at least 10,” Burnham said. “As we’re seeing declining enrollments and participation, I think it’s going to become an issue again.”

The MPA has addressed the shrinking roster situation in two ways. The first was to encourage co-op programs between schools (currently numbering eight). The second was to create a separate division (Class E) for schools struggling to maintain their programs.

Boothbay, Camden Hills, Telstar of Bethel and Sacopee Valley of Hiram all returned to varsity competition this fall after having previously pulled the plug. Maranacook of Readfield dropped down from Class D, along with Traip. None of the six has a roster larger than Sacopee Valley’s 29.

The six Class E teams were not the only schools with precarious roster sizes. Seven in Classes C and D opened the season with fewer than 30 players and another six schools have dropped below 30 at least once in the previous three seasons.

For some schools, there seems to be a stigma about embracing eight-man football. Cosgrove said there shouldn’t be.

“If you put a helmet on and you’re running and you’re going to get hit by someone, that’s real football,” he said. “Don’t tell me it isn’t.”

Cosgrove noted an alumni list of NFL players who came up through six- or eight-player programs. That list includes 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam and former All-Pro safety Nolan Cromwell, now a Cleveland Browns assistant coach.

“I don’t know that you can afford in this day and age, where the numbers are declining so much, to look at anything with disdain,” Cosgrove said. “I think you have to respect the potential opportunity for a community in danger of what’s happened of late.”

Stu Wyckoff, president of the Aroostook Huskies, is a longtime proponent of eight-player football. The Huskies are one of five clubs in the Maine Independent Football League, which draws from schools without MPA-sanctioned football programs. They play 11-man football because Madawaska is the only other club willing to play 8-on-8, which is played at the MIFL’s junior high level.

The program started in 2003 as six-player football and moved up to eight players in 2006. It remained that way until Houlton left the MIFL and joined MPA ranks as an 11-player program in 2014.

“There’s a lot of football that could be played if it was eight-man,” Wyckoff said. “I wish we could get back to it. Twenty is a wonderful eight-man team but a terrible 11-man team.”

The five MIFL clubs hail from Damariscotta, China, Madawaska, Presque Isle and Berlin, New Hampshire. Because of a newly adopted rule, if a team is in danger of forfeiting, an eight-player game can be played instead. So far this fall, that hasn’t happened.

Someday soon, Wyckoff believes, the eight-player game will be more prevalent in Maine.

“They told me it’s not going to happen until schools are in danger of losing their programs,” he said of conversations with the MPA. “It seems like that’s where we are now.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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