Kyle Graffam was a little nervous going into the 2019 football season.

Then a sophomore at Mt. Ararat High in Topsham, Graffam and his teammates were adjusting to a different version of the sport that features two fewer interior offensive linemen – Graffam’s position – and one less player in the backfield. With fewer players and more space to roam, everything was going to feel faster.

Two years later, Graffam, now a senior leader for the Eagles, is fine with having made the switch to eight-man football.

“I don’t think I’m less of a football player than an 11-man player because there’s less players on the field,” Graffam said. “It’s just a couple less guys. We all adapted.”

Mt. Ararat was one of 10 high school teams to play eight-man football in 2019, when the sport made its debut in Maine after years of steady decline in football participation. Although the eight-man version of the traditional 11-man game was met with skepticism by some coaches and administrators, the debut season proved so successful that other teams rushed to sign up.

When the 2021 high school football season kicks off later this week, 25 teams will play eight-man football – representing nearly a third of all the high school football teams in the state.

From 2015 to 2019, the number of high school football players in Maine declined by nearly 14 percent, extending a trend that has been more than a decade in the making. Schools such as Boothbay Region, Camden Hills, Dirigo, Orono, Sacopee Valley, Telstar and Traip Academy dropped their varsity football programs at one point because they lacked enough players to compete safely and remain competitive.

All of them will be part of the eight-man league this fall.

Eight-man football was approved by the Maine Principals’ Association in 2019 to counter the problem of shrinking roster sizes, allowing schools to continue fielding teams without risk of playing younger athletes not yet physically ready for varsity football. The MPA has no minimum requirement for 11-man football rosters, but recommends having at least 20 players. The eight-man version of the sport allows for teams with small rosters to engage in meaningful practices as well as in games.

“For our program, there wasn’t really a choice,” Sacopee Valley coach Steve Bridges said of making the switch to eight-man football. “With only 20 kids coming out consistently, this kept our program afloat.”

A player cuts around a cone during morning drills at Mt. Ararat’s football practice on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In 2019, Camden Hills was one of those schools determined to hang on in 11-man football, until coach Chris Christie and his staff started watching eight-man.

“We watched Mt. Ararat and Old Orchard Beach (in the state championship). The part we loved as we watched it, it’s still football,” Christie said. “We want our kids to succeed and we want to build interest. Success breeds interest.”

Bridges agrees.

“The teams that competed in the new format in 2019 did a great job, and brought attention to their version of football,” he said. “Our communities accepted the changes and saw the benefits for our student athletes, and at the end of the day everyone agreed it was just as ‘football’ as the 11-player game.”

Maine is one of 22 states to offer eight-man football, which has surged in popularity across the country. Nationally, participation in high school football dropped by 7 percent from 2012-19, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. But the number of students playing eight-man football increased by almost 22 percent during those years.

Many of the schools in Maine that made the move to eight-man football were unsurprising. Six of them came from the northern Maine Class D Little Ten Conference, which features some of the smallest football schools in the state. Dexter, despite having a football team for decades, finds it hard to maintain a football roster with an enrollment that now stands at 261 students, down from 308 six years ago. Some schools, like Telstar and Boothbay, two of the original 10 eight-man schools in 2019, now have enrollments below 200 students. According to the MPA football bulletin, both Telstar and Boothbay stand at 176 students.

One newcomer to eight-man football this fall did raise some eyebrows around the state: Cheverus.

It wasn’t long ago that Cheverus was among the state’s most dominant high school football programs. The Portland Catholic school won back-to-back Class A state championships in 2010 and 2011, going undefeated each season. In 2013, Cheverus played in the Class A state championship game again, losing a close game to Bonny Eagle, 31-28.

In 2018, its final season in Class A, Cheverus lost to Oxford Hills in the Class A North semifinals. The Stags played in Class B South in 2019, losing to Kennebunk in the regional semifinals. That season, the program had just 32 players, and coach Mike Vance knew his team would continue to face a numbers crunch.

Cheverus players run offensive drills during their first practice for their first season as an eight-man football team. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“You know, eight-man has existed across the country for decades and decades. It just hasn’t been in the Northeast until recently,” Vance said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure what it was about. After looking into it, we realized, this is our game. It’s blocking, it’s tackling.

“How we explained it to the kids is, my left guard is going to have the same experience. He’s going to do the same six or seven things and come off the field exhausted and feeling good about himself. We look at eight-man as a good answer to a difficult problem.”

With an enrollment of 360 students, Cheverus will compete in the eight-Man Large School South Division. In 2015-16, Cheverus’ enrollment was 467, and there were 48 players in the football program. This season the Stags had 40 players out for the first day of practice, largely freshmen and sophomores.

Mountain Valley High in Rumford is not far removed from being one of the top Class B programs in Maine. The Falcons won state titles in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010, and were runners-up in 2007. Coach Devin Roberts was a member of the gold ball winning teams in 2004 and 2006. Becoming head coach at Mountain Valley was a dream come true, Roberts said, and he wanted his players to have the same experience he and his teammates enjoyed.

Roberts is also a realist, and he saw the numbers. Enrollment at Mountain Valley dropped from 398 in 2015-16 to its current 354. Forty-two players were on the roster in 2015. This season Roberts has 30. He ended the 2019 season with 22.

“You have so much pride, you want to keep the same thing, the same traditions, and you can’t,” Roberts said. “At some point, it’s not safe.”

Waterville High players work through a drill during an Aug. 16 practice. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Waterville has not had a winning season since 2014, and went 2-6 in Class C North in 2019. Some players chose not to come out to the team as it transitions to eight-man this season. Those who came out for the team enjoy the game.

“There was a lot of people who said that our sophomore year, who said they weren’t going to come back. Some people didn’t come back, but some people actually joined for the new experience,” said Waterville senior Billy Place.

Eight-man football is not a guaranteed cure-all for teams struggling with participation. Just last week, Washington Academy pulled the plug on its season when it was down to seven healthy players. At Gray-New Gloucester, coach Brian Jahna said he had 19 players at practice last week, but with injuries only 14 or 15 were able to fully participate. Jahna is trying to think of ways to drum up interest in football. Maybe an open house? Perhaps players recruiting friends who aren’t committed to another fall sport?

“That’s the million dollar question, right?” Jahna said. “We hope to add some when school starts.”

Other schools are seeing increased participation in eight-man football. Camden Hills, which had to shut down after a few games in 2015 due to a lack of players, has just over 30 players after ending the 2019 season with 17, Christie said. Maranacook has around two dozen players, up from 17 in 2019. At Mattawnawcook Academy, coach Brad Bishop has 24 players “and it works perfectly.”

The move to eight-man football is an adjustment, mentally and physically. Fewer players means more open space, even on a field that is 40 yards wide compared to 53 yards in 11-man football. If a defender misses an open field tackle, or a blocker misses an assignment, it’s less likely a teammate will be there to clean up the mistake.

“You can cover up a bad play in 11-man,” said Maranacook coach Jordan DeMillo. “These (eight-man) kids have to know football.”

Added Graffam, who lines up at linebacker for Mt. Ararat’s defense: “It’s still a big field for eight people. It’s a lot quicker, I noticed. Things happen a lot faster.”

Mountain Valley of Rumford is one of 15 teams making the switch to eight-man football this fall. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

Roberts saw that when his Falcons scrimmaged Telstar earlier this month. Telstar players quickly dissected Mountain Valley’s formations and were much more at ease on the field. You could tell they had played eight-man football before, Roberts said. DeMillo said the first thing he notices when he watches an 11-man game is the size of the linemen. In studying an eight-man team, he notices speed.

“We’ve got to put our best athletes out there, regardless of position. You need guys who can make plays in open space. A lot of us are going through this for the first time. A lot of it is going to be educated guessing,” said Waterville coach Isaac LeBlanc.

If there had been a tackle football season in 2020, DeMillo thinks his team and the nine others with a year of eight-man experience may have had an advantage over the newcomers. With every team coming off a season of 7-on-7 flag football, and with coaches having more time to study eight-man film, that advantage is gone, DeMillo said.

For many schools now playing eight-man football, the goal is to return to 11-man when participation numbers revive. Old Orchard Beach coach Dean Plante, whose team lost to Mt. Ararat in the 2019 eight-man championship game, doesn’t know if that’s possible.

“I really, really think (eight-man football) would have been bigger the first year if people weren’t worried about perception and had focused more on reality. My principal, John Suttie, is a football guy and we’re convinced the trend is not going to slow down. In next four-five years it will be at least a 50-50 split in the state,” Plante said.

“I think it’s good to look at things in a realistic way. Eight-man football is fun, kids love it. To me it’s a no-brainer for a lot of schools fighting it.”

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