As coach Duane Crawford pondered the future of the Ellsworth High School football program after last fall’s 3-5 finish, his thoughts quickly were drawn to mathematics.
The Eagles struggled to field 20 players for games in 2018, and only 10 were available to return next fall.
That reality has led Ellsworth to join nine other high school programs in introducing eight-player varsity football to Maine this fall.
Low numbers are not unusual for the program, which returned to varsity play in 2012 for the first time in more than six decades but has struggled to gain numerical traction at a school steeped in soccer tradition.
And while the middle-school level boasts promising participation numbers, asking younger prospects to compete against upperclassmen as soon as they reach high school is a tough ask for any coach. It is even more challenging when Ellsworth would be reclassified from Class D to Class C this fall based on Ellsworth’s 455-student enrollment.
“We have some good classes coming up behind us that are 15 to 20 players strong,” Crawford said. “But waiting for those kids to get up there and be able to contribute is a long wait. I just couldn’t see us playing 11-man football with 10 returning players and trying to limp through a season. We’d never make it in Class C to the end of the year.”
Eight-player football involves two fewer linemen and one less running back or receiver on the field than the 11-player game. Field size varies across the country, but the Maine version is expected to be contested on a 40-by-100-yard gridiron — 12 yards narrower but the same length as the 11-player version.
“Somebody said it’s no different than going out to play basketball and you only have six players so you play three-on-three,” Crawford said. “I think it’s going to open up things a little more and be an exciting brand of football.”
More than 19,500 athletes played eight-player football at 847 high schools in 19 states during the 2017 season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The number of states offering the alternative to 11-player football is gradually on the increase.
According to NFHS statistics, high school football participation in Maine has declined from a high of 4,153 players in 2008 to 3,443 in 2017 — a drop of 12 percent.
Reasons for the trend include a statewide reduction in student enrollment, more interscholastic activities being offered, sport specialization by some student-athletes and concerns about the prevalence of head injuries in football.
The Maine Principals’ Association several years ago began discussions about sponsoring eight-player football. The idea initially was greeted with reluctance by the football community, but the numbers faced by schools like Ellsworth eventually softened the resistance and led last week to the MPA’s final approval of the latest proposal.
The first year of MPA eight-player football will include a large-school division made up of Mt. Ararat of Topsham, Gray-New Gloucester, Yarmouth, Ellsworth and Maranacook of Readfield, and a small-school division of Sacopee Valley of South Hiram, Traip Academy of Kittery, Old Orchard Beach, Boothbay Region and Telstar of Bethel.
All have experienced declining participation and a lack of on-field success in recent years.
Crawford could see the writing on the wall.
“We were looking at having 20 players again this year, and you just can’t look at playing 11-man football with 20 players,” he said.
Crawford, who consulted with Ellsworth athletic administrator Josh Frost, and contacted middle-school and youth football coaches as the school considered shifting to eight-player football, said his stance was influenced by former University of Maine head football coach Jack Cosgrove, who is now the head coach at Colby College in Waterville.
“There were some people who don’t understand going from 11 to eight,” Crawford said, but I like what coach Cosgrove said when we were at the Maine coaches meeting, ‘that unless you have 30 or more kids on your team, you should be playing eight-man football.’”
Now comes the fun part for coaches like Crawford and primary assistant and longtime former Mount Desert Island head coach George “Toogie” McKay: Game-planning for this more wide-open version of the sport.
“It’s a huge challenge and a huge learning curve for the coaches, so it’s going to be exciting on one hand but probably frustrating on the other hand until we start to get it figured out,” Crawford said. “But it’s real football. You can run option, you can run wing-T. Anything we’ve done before we can run in eight-man.”
Ellsworth already has its 2019 schedule, beginning with its Sept. 6 regular-season opener at home against Yarmouth.
As the only eight-player varsity football program north of Augusta, the Eagles will face four fairly lengthy road trips this fall to Mt. Ararat, Maranacook, Yarmouth and Gray-New Gloucester.
“We can live with this to get a competitive schedule and hopefully we can be competitive,” Crawford said.
He believes the fast pace of eight-player football, combined with continuing struggles by other programs to attract enough players for the 11-player version, may lead to other schools eventually making the switch.
“I think if the MPA had said, ‘OK, we’re going to have A, B and C and eight-man football [instead of A, B, C and D], there’d be a whole bunch of teams playing [eight-man] at this point,” he said. “But nobody likes change, and it’s tough to retool everything, especially for programs that have a long history and great tradition.
“But I think once they see it and see how much fun it is, you’ll see more teams look at eight-man.”