When Polo announced its intention of starting 8-man football in 2019, reverberations were felt all around the NUIC, especially in the Upstate division. If one of the traditionally strong programs in the conference could make such a bold move, would others follow suit?
Right now, there appears to be a hesitancy to make the change from 11-man to 8-man football, even with Polo blazing a trail for it, and many programs having experienced low numbers.
“Credit to Polo for making a stance on this,” AFC athletic director Traci Gittleson said. “They have done their research, and it’s a good thing for them. The conference has talked about this quite a bit.”
Besides stimulating chatter among league athletic directors, many an NUIC school has done their own fact-finding on the suddenly hot topic of 8-man football.
“At AFC, we’ve had conversations,” Gittleson said. “Our numbers at the fresh-soph level are low, but we should be OK after that.”
Milledgeville, Polo’s biggest
rival and a long-ago candidate for a co-op with the Marcos, is no stranger to shortages of varsity players. However, the Missiles are not ready to give up 11-man ball, especially with recent success and adequate size of upcoming classes.
“We’re OK for next year, and our freshmen and eighth grade have decent numbers,” Milledgeville AD John Nesemeier said. “Down the road, we might look into it. Honestly, I think the IHSA will eventually approve 8-man.”
Freeport Aquin’s Berin Jackson had similar thoughts. With small numbers, the Bulldogs have fostered a culture of quality over quantity to win games.
“As far as right now, we are not interested in 8-man,” the Aquin AD said. “With a large crop of freshmen and eighth graders, we’ll be good for a few years. Where we’ll struggle is sixth grade (four boys) and lower. When that group comes up, I’m not sure where we’ll be with football.”
River Ridge, with 40 fewer students than Polo, has only won five games in 4 years, and would appear to be a prime candidate for 8-man. But there is fear of the unknown.
“We have talked about and looked into 8-man,” River Ridge AD Shean Albrecht said. “But, until a few more teams develop, we are going to continue 11-man.”
Another inhibiting factor is the IHSA not recognizing 8-man football as an official sport.
“Without having a postseason, schools are a little nervous,” Gittleson said.
Orangeville and its enrollment of 101 was the smallest school by 64 students to make the playoffs. The Broncos also have state championship (1989) to their name, and a strong sense of community pride.
But Polo also has a longtime heritage on the gridiron.
Bucking the odds, Orangeville will play 11-man football as long as they continue to field a team, according to AD William Guy.
The only school in the Upstate division with a larger enrollment than Polo is perennial power Stockton, and the Blackhawks are the least likely candidate to make the switch.
What about programs that have previously been part of a co-op because of low numbers? Would 8-man football be enough of an enticement to go it alone?
Not for EPC or Pecatonica-Durand. Both plan to keep their co-ops as Northwest division members.
“We haven’t even discussed [8-man],” Pecatonica AD Kevin Kunkel said.
It wasn’t too long ago that Pecatonica had to forfeit a number of games because of not being able to field a varsity team. Two years ago after an 0-9 season, they opted for the co-op with Durand.
Though Eastland would be 1A without a co-op and likely slotted into the less competitive Upstate division, AD Scott Hartman said they are satisfied with their arrangement with Pearl City.
Football programs with larger numbers, such as Forreston, will still be affected by Polo’s move to 8-man. That, along with Warren’s decision to co-op with a Wisconsin school, will set the NUIC into a different scheduling arrangement in 2019.
It will leave nine Northwest division teams and six on the Upstate side.
“There’s still so many questions,” Forreston AD Kyle Zick said. “How do you handle realignment? What are the options?”
With 40-50 kids playing football, Forreston is an exception to the number problems plaguing not just the NUIC, but small schools all over the state.
“We’re lucky,” Zick said. “But, what about 10 years from now? We don’t know what the future will bring.”
Amboy-LaMoille made the move from the Three Rivers to the NUIC because of a decreasing enrollment. After back-to-back 3-6 campaigns in the NUIC, Amboy is down to a 216 enrollment. A cause for alarm?
“We have talked about [8-man], but no serious conversations yet,” Amboy AD George Schwamberger said. “We are keeping a close eye on how it is developing, and our numbers in the upcoming years.”
For now, it appears as though Polo will be the lone pioneer from the NUIC to pursue 8-man football. But, in the face of declining participation levels for high-school football, don’t expect that to always be the case.