Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about eight-man football leading up to its first season in Maine.
OLD ORCHARD BEACH — To Gray-New Gloucester varsity head football coach Brian Jahna, the time to talk about eight-man football is over.
“I know people still talk about it in Maine, but we don’t,” he said. “We just do what we do and that’s try to get better.”
Jahna’s Patriots and other Maine teams making the transition from 11-man to eight-man football this season have already broken the huddle and are preparing for the kickoff to their first season, which is seven weeks away.
Next fall, 10 teams from across the state, including Gray-New Gloucester and Telstar, will become the first in the state’s history to play eight-man football.
In April, the Maine Principals’ Association’s member schools voted to approve a new alignment for high school football in Maine, which included a separate eight-man league consisting of 10 teams.
The teams were split into two five-team divisions, a “large school” division for schools with enrollment of 351 and above (Gray-NG, Ellsworth, Maranacook, Mt. Ararat and Yarmouth) and a “small school” division of schools with 350 or less (Boothbay, Old Orchard Beach, Sacopee Valley, Telstar, Traip Academy).
The move was designed to give another option to schools having difficulty being competitive or having enough players for 11-man football. No other New England state has an eight-man football league, and it has never been sanctioned by the MPA. But as of 2017, 18 states, mostly in the Midwest and West, had eight-man football at the high school level.
Because it is so unknown in Maine, some schools took a wait-and-see attitude about the sport, or rejected it outright. Jahna and Old Orchard Beach coach and athletic director Dean Plante said their players have been much more receptive.
“I think most people were definitely skeptical,” said Jacob Methot, an upcoming senior middle linebacker for Old Orchard Beach, which finished 4-5 last year in Class E. “Now, it seems like the perfect fit.”
“We’re all excited to play football,” said Gray-New Gloucester’s Danny Stash, a senior quarterback, “whether it be 11-man or eight-man. We all just love the sport and we all just want to play.”
Thanks to the internet and websites such as HUDL, Maine coaches and players are able to watch hours and hours of eight-man film uploaded by eight-man teams from around the country. Coaches also attended an MPA clinic on eight-man football organized by former Lewiston High School and Bates College coach Skip Capone.
The next step is introducing the players to the details of eight-man football, although some schools started doing even before the 2018 season ended.
“The idea of eight-man was not suddenly sprung on the kids when the MPA approved it,” Plante said.
“Even last year, during the end of the season, we started to build in some formations,” Methot said.
Like their 11-man peers, players need to practice those formations and plays in eight-man during the summer. A number of the schools agreed to participate in three summer 6-on-6 passing scrimmage sessions, similar to the seven-on-seven sessions 11-man teams have held for more than a decade.
Gray-New Gloucester, which finished 0-8 in Class C last season, hosted the first session in late June. Old Orchard Beach was the site of the second session last Friday and will host the third and final one this Friday.
The scrimmages not only give players a feel for the differences in eight-man football but, perhaps more importantly, helps them realize that the game itself really isn’t all that different from the 11-man version.
“I think the kids realized it pretty quickly. As soon as they get on the practice field and start doing what we ask, it feels and looks exactly the same,” Jahna said. “On film, it may look a little bit different, but on the field they’re not going to notice a whole lot of difference.”
“It feels the same. It’s just less players,” OOB junior quarterback/safety Jaden Davies said. “I think football’s football. It doesn’t matter how many players.”
Plante said the switch over to eight-man football will have “zero impact” on his athletic budget. He and Jahna both said it hasn’t impacted numbers on their respective teams, either, although that won’t be known for certain until practices for the fall season start on Aug. 19.
While players and coaches agreed eight-man football is gaining full acceptance in their ranks, they acknowledged parents and fans, especially the traditionalists, may need more convincing.
“People who say it isn’t real football either haven’t tried it yet or don’t play football,” Stash said. “I’d say to them you try putting on pads and come play eight-man football and get tackled and see if you think it’s football or not. We’re still hitting people just as hard, we’re still tackling people, we’re still getting touchdowns, we’re still playing defense and we’re still playing the game.”
“Kids are here still playing the sport,” Stash added. “Instead of quitting, they’re pushing forward with it, which is way better than just giving up.”