OLD ORCHARD BEACH — It was fitting that Ryan Crockett scored the first touchdown in Maine’s first sanctioned eight-man high school football game.

A basketball player first, Crockett never had played high school football. But when Old Orchard Beach High made the commitment to switching from 11- to eight-man, the lanky 6-foot junior liked what he saw.

“Eight-man was one of the things that made me want to play because people say that it’s safer, it has more of an open field. A lot of passing and I knew they could throw to me,” Crockett said.

In other words, Crockett is exactly the type of kid football needs to get back on the field, especially at small schools like Old Orchard and Telstar, who played Thursday night in the kickoff to the 2019 football season and the start of Maine’s 10-team eight-man schedule.

Crockett scored the first touchdown with 9:07 to play, hauling in a well-thrown deep ball down the left sideline by Jaden Davies. They connected for three more scores, and Davies also threw touchdowns to tight end David Anderson as Old Orchard built a big lead en route to a 44-28 victory.

Old Orchard Coach Dean Plante was an early proponent of eight-man. His players knew Thursday’s game had big-picture ramifications.

“Ever since April when the schedule came out and we knew we had the first game, Coach has been in our ear, saying, ‘we’ve got to set the tone for eight-man,’ ” Crockett said.

“There’s a lot that we can work on still but we showed that we’re ready for eight-man,” said running  back Jacob Payea.

Payea’s physical running style, and his speed around the corner, helped illustrate what eight-man coaches have said all along: It’s still football, just with fewer players on a skinnier (by 40 feet) field.

But among the roughly 250 people in attendance there were doubters, like Old Orchard Beach resident Wayne Moody, a 1996 Old Orchard graduate. Before the game, the former Seagull and father of two younger football-playing boys, Moody said he was worried that eight-man was just going to be a sad transition “to no-man football.”

After Old Orchard took a 38-6 halftime lead, Moody changed his tune.

“They’ve won me over. They’ve taken a couple guys off the field but it’s still football,” Moody said. “There’s still guys lining up and hitting.”

Old Orchard Beach defenders take down a Telstar player in the end zone for a safety in the state’s first eight-man high school football game on Thursday evening in Old Orchard Beach. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

There are differences, of course. Two linemen and one skill position player are missing on offense. Defensively, the challenge to cover those extra holes means players have to be good tacklers in space.

Watching from a corner of the field was Mt. Ararat Coach Frank True and two of his assistants. Mt. Ararat, which played Class B football last year, is the largest of the 10 schools in the eight-man ranks with an enrollment of 709. A year ago, playing against powerhouse programs like Marshwood and Kennebunk, Mt. Ararat finished the season with under 20 players. This year True has 30 players, plenty to play junior varsity games in eight-man.

“That was the big thing for me, and something too often overlooked, is now we’re able to develop our young players,” True said.

Telstar dressed 19 players, Old Orchard had 24. In 11-player those skimpy rosters would be cause for immediate worry. But both teams played hard to the end Thursday. Telstar could feel good about driving for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the second scored by its best player, Brayden Stevens, with 1:19 to play.

“I think it’s more fun. I think eight-man football is a lot more fun,” Stevens said. “It’s faster, a lot more physicality.”

For schools like Old Orchard Beach (243 students) and Telstar (199), switching to eight-man was a simple recognition that their small enrollments could no longer produce the 30-plus players needed to play 11-man safely.

In 2018, 1,563 teams nationally played 9-, 8- or 6-player football. Eight-man is the most popular, with 946 teams across 20 states last season, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s annual participation survey. It helps smaller, rural schools save their programs.

Maine fits the profile. Only 29 of the state’s 78 varsity football programs are supported by enrollments greater than 600 students. Smaller schools combined with increased awareness and concern about concussions have caused participation to plummet. In 2018, there were 717 fewer football players in Maine than 10 years previously, a nearly 18 percent drop.

Many observers expect more schools to opt for eight-man as a way to save their programs. Old Orchard assistant coach John Gallant thinks they should.

“If people refuse to go to eight-man next year, they’re dumb. This is so good,” said Gallant.

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