One of the more notable features of eight-man football is the width of the field, reduced by 40 feet from the traditional version of the sport. This game featured Mt. Ararat at Yarmouth High last Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A few days after his Mt. Ararat High football team won its third straight game, Coach Frank True pondered the question.

Has eight-man football saved the Eagles’ program?

“I don’t know if it saved it, but it was in a spot where if we didn’t do something, it would have been in trouble,” said True, who returned this year for a second stint as head coach after a four-year absence. “You can’t play 11-man football with the 15, 16 kids they ended with last year.”

Mt. Ararat is one of several high school football programs that struggled with anemic roster sizes while playing the traditional 11-man version of the sport. This fall, with the advent of eight-man football in Maine, several teams are able to be competitive on the field for the first time in years – and they’re having fun.

“It’s been awesome. I’ve not heard a negative word,” said Gray-New Gloucester Coach Brian Jahna, whose team snapped a 29-game losing streak by winning its second game of the season. “There’s energy. Excitement. Attendance through the roof. It’s only been positive.”

Eight-man football is played without two interior linemen and one back found in traditional football. The field is 120 feet wide instead of 160 feet, and in Maine, the length of the field remains 100 yards.

Having fewer players on the field obviously benefits teams with smaller rosters, particularly when it comes to conducting meaningful practices.

Ten of the state’s 78 high school football programs opted to play in the eight-man league after the Maine Principals’ Association adopted the change last spring in light of declining participation. Several of those programs took their lumps for years, suffering lopsided defeats and even having to forfeit games because they lacked enough players to continue the season safely.

All 10 teams in the eight-man league have posted at least one win through their first four games this fall.

Yarmouth High fans cheer from the bleachers during their eight-man football game against Mt. Ararat last Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In Bethel, Telstar High hadn’t won a varsity game on the field since 2013 (its only wins were forfeits). Rosters with 20 or fewer players became routine. The Rebels were unable to play a varsity schedule in 2016.

This season, Telstar (3-1) has won three straight games.

“We survived 11-man football last year with only 15 kids. I don’t know how, but we did,” said Telstar Coach Tim O’Connor, who now has 21 players. “Now, there’s a lot of excitement among the players and the school because the team is doing well. It think it has saved our program.”

Kittery’s Traip Academy, which had to forfeit six games in 2017, is 2-2. Earlier this season, Coach Eric Lane said that Traip added players because of the switch to eight-man. Lane is convinced the roster growth is because players realized they wouldn’t be expected to play “iron-man football.”

Most eight-man programs now have enough players to safely play varsity games and also add a subvarsity schedule.

“That’s what I’m most excited about,” said True, who has 11 freshmen on his Mt. Ararat team. “They know Monday is their game day, and that’s what’s most important to me. They get to play, get to play against their peers, and they’re competing and, I believe, having a good time.”

‘PEOPLE ARE MORE HOPEFUL’

Running back Riley Morin, who has helped Mt. Ararat win three of its first four games in eight-man football after the program struggled in previous years, says “I think we’re going to leave a big legacy here and get Mt. Ararat football turned around for good.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

With more than 700 students, Mt. Ararat in Topsham is the largest school among Maine’s 10 eight-man teams. But the Eagles were facing many of the same problems that have plagued smaller schools in Maine.

Small rosters led to a competitive imbalance. From 2011-18, Mt. Ararat won 14 games and lost 55 while competing in Class B South. The roster continued to shrink as the Eagles routinely lost games by 40 points or more.

After its 44-8 win last Friday at Yarmouth, Mt. Ararat is 3-1. The stigma of losing has been replaced by a clean slate of confidence.

“I think we’re going to leave a big legacy here and get Mt. Ararat football turned around for good,” senior running back Riley Morin said.

“People are more hopeful toward us. We’re just a little more competitive this year, as well,” said senior lineman/linebacker Daniel Jackson.

In 2018, 236 fewer players participated in high school football in Maine than in 2017, a 6.8 percent decline in one year, and a 12.4 percent drop in participation from 2015.

Last season, 33 of the state’s 78 football programs reported 35 or fewer players participating. Participation rates include players who were unable or unwilling to finish a season. The MPA does not place limits on football roster sizes, but recommends that teams have at least 20 players.

Old Orchard Beach football coach Dean Plante talks with his team during their first practice of the season in August. Plante was among the earliest proponents of eight-man football. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dean Plante, the athletic director and football coach at Old Orchard Beach High, was among the earliest proponents of eight-man football. To him, it was the best way for his small school (243 students) to continue to play a sport he believes still provides student-athletes with positive experiences.

“That’s what adults need to legitimately ask themselves,” Plante said. “Do you believe in the sport, what it teaches, the benefit to the school and community, as opposed to the pride in the past?”

MORE 11-MAN TEAMS BOW OUT

The 10 programs that decided to switch to eight-man football had 2018 rosters that ranged from 16 players at Telstar to 31 for both Yarmouth and Old Orchard Beach.

Eight other programs that reported fewer than 30 players in 2018 decided to stay with 11-man football this fall. Two of those programs – Orono and Dirigo, in Dixfield – have had to cancel their varsity seasons because they didn’t have enough players.

Dirigo Athletic Director Jess McGreevy said eight-man football will be discussed as an option for 2020 once this season is over. “It’s a strong possibility,” she said.

Orono intends to return to 11-man football next season.

“I don’t see eight-man in our foreseeable future because we have good numbers in our eighth- and seventh-grade classes,” Orono Athletic Director Mike Archer said, noting that Orono expects to have about 35 players next season and “maybe mid-40s” the year after.

But Archer thinks other teams will switch to eight-man.

“I’m the commissioner of our (Little Ten Conference) league, and I can tell you in our league there are two, three schools just getting by on life support,” Archer said.

WHAT THE GAME LOOKS LIKE

On the field, eight-man football presents new challenges for coaches versed in the 11-man game.

A maximum of three players can be in the offensive backfield, but similar to 11-man football, the offensive alignments can vary greatly. Yarmouth prefers a tight, two tight-end look that features plenty of off-tackle runs with two backs and the quarterback. Mt. Ararat is also a run-heavy team, but prefers lining up Morin as a single back, with speedster Holden Brannon taking handoffs on jet sweeps or wing-back counters.

Scoring in eight-man football this fall has been higher than in games played in traditional Class A and Class B football, but not all eight-man games are shootouts. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“Everyone worried about the spread offense and how to defend it with eight men,” Plante said. “That’s easy. But how do you defend when they come out two tight (ends). Zone defenses have been less than easy to implement. You’re definitely relying on some athleticism in coverage.”

Many predicted the game would be higher scoring and more wide-open, and scoring is up compared to other classes. The average total points in the 20 eight-man games played thus far is 58.65, compared to 50.17 in games between Class A teams and 50.95 in games between Class B South teams.

But not all eight-man games are shootouts. Games involving Readfield’s unbeaten Maranacook High School have averaged 43.5 points because the Bears have eight-man’s stingiest defense (15.5 points per game).

Defenders have to be more versatile, said Mt. Ararat’s Jackson, who in the span of one series at outside linebacker against Yarmouth was seen stuffing an inside run, and then lined up opposite the wide receiver in man coverage.

“It’s stressful, but it’s awesome,” Jackson said. “I would say you have to be more of a well-rounded player. You have to have the speed, but you also have to have the strength and toughness to move people around.”

STILL SOME RELUCTANCE

While the overwhelming reaction among eight-man coaches has been positive to the switch, Yarmouth Coach Jim Hartman has mixed feelings, partly because he worries that the classic lineman who is big and tough but not very fast has less opportunity.

Yarmouth High is one of the 10 new eight-man football teams in Maine this fall, but Coach Jim Hartman would prefer that the Clippers return to 11-man football. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Hartman built Yarmouth into a two-time Class C champion before a successful seven-year stint as Portland’s head coach. Hartman returned to Yarmouth knowing he would be coaching eight-man football.

On the one hand, Hartman said “eight-man is much ado about nothing. Football is football.” But he also thinks it’s not appropriate for schools with more than 300 students (Yarmouth’s enrollment is over 500), and “I can’t develop any tackles or real defensive linemen.”

Yarmouth made the switch because it projected having only 19 players in 2019. Yarmouth now has 31 players, but only three seniors.

“We should be taking our lumps in Class C,” Hartman said.

Gray-New Gloucester’s Jahna has a different perspective.

A year ago, he and his coaching staff were constantly worried about just getting through each game with enough healthy players to play the next week “and keep a varsity program.”

This season, the Patriots’ roster size has grown from 26 to the mid-30s. His nine freshmen and nine sophomores are getting plenty of playing time at the subvarsity level. The varsity focus has shifted from survival to improvement.

“Now we worry about how we can win games. That’s huge. That’s all the difference,” he said.

“You can rotate your varsity players. You develop your younger players. You can absorb injuries. And, the kids love it.”

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