If you’re heading to a Pine Plains football game this season and start yelling at the coach to put more guys on the field, hold that thought.
Pine Plains, along with a number of other high schools in Section IX, have decided to play eight-man football this season instead of the normal 11-man game that rules most of New York state.
“It was a difficult decision for the coaching staff and administration,” Pine Plains football coach and athletic director Rob Scott said. “I met with our Superintendent, the board and other coaches. For us to still keep football in Pine Plains, we had to do this.”
Pine Plains is already merged with Rhinebeck for football, so bringing another school into the mix to boost numbers wasn’t an option.
Two years ago, the Bombers started the season with 30 players. Last year it had 27. This year, they were down to 24 at the first day of practice on Monday.
“The numbers might not look like they are falling drastically, but that’s a big percentage and I think it’s that way with all of the C and D schools,” Scott said. “The district here is not growing, it’s shrinking, and with that the number of available athletes shrinks.”
Pine Plains is coming off a season in which the team won its first playoff game since 2005, beating Dover 14-7 in the Section IX Class C quarterfinal.
Still, numbers were so low this season that the team decided to take a road less traveled with eight-man football.
In the eight-man game, teams need a minimum of 12 players instead of the 16 needed to play 11-man.
Dover also is going with the eight-man game, as is Fallsburg, Livingston Manor/Roscoe, Pawling, Eldrid, Sullivan West and Tri-Valley, bringing the total number to eight teams in Section IX.
“I think the players were disappointed at first,” Scott said. “We had a team meeting, I showed them eight-man football on YouTube and said ‘look at this, does this not look like football to you?’
“I think the kids had some trepidations, but they’ve gotten over the shock. It’s going to be a bit of culture shock for the fans, though. The kids just love the game and want to play.”
Teams in Section II have struggled with numbers in recent years, as well, and dropping to an eight-man game could be an option down the road.
“It is a discussion item with the Section II Football Committee in each of the past couple years. I offer the option to schools in Section II if they think they might be interested,” Section II coordinator and Ravena football coach Bob Dorrance said. “To date only one school showed moderate interest. With no other Section II schools considering this option, they also decided to stay with 11-man football and try to make it work. Traveling to games hosted in Section III, where they are going into the second year of an eight-man football league, was part of the decision making process. It may still be a viable option moving forward, but I think most, if not all, of the coaches in Section II prefer 11-man football and would consider it as an option for a couple of seasons if numbers were low, so as to not lose football for a year.”
With Section IX making a strong push into the eight-man game, teams in Section II might be more likely to explore the option and compete against the likes of Pine Plains, Dover and others to the south.
Scott noted that so many Section IX teams heading to the eight-man format at once helped push Pine Plains to make the leap.
“It made the decision much easier for us — us and Pawling were the last two teams to go eight-man,” he said. “When I found out all of our competition minus Onteora and Millbrook went to eight-man, it really opened my eyes as a possibility.”
Teams around the state are having the same revelation.
Last week Weedsport decided to drop down and raise Section III’s total number of eight-man teams to 12, joining in Cooperstown, Bishop Grimes, New York Mills, Oriskany, South Lewis, Altmar-Parish-Williamstown, Pulaski, West Canada Valley, Morrisville-Eaton and Sherburne-Earlville. Section IV has four teams in Lansing, Newfield, Oxford and Unadilla Valley. In Section X, Tupper Lake is the only school competing with less players on the field. Section V has four teams joining the movement.
This season will be an experimental one in Section IX, with every team essentially starting from scratch.
“Right now, there is no old film on anybody,” Scott said. “If I needed to make a game plan for Roscoe or Ellenville for an 11-man game, I could do that right now. I have no idea what they’ll be running as an eight-man team, though.
“Offensively, it’s been easier to transition. We use the same terminology. Defensively is where things have been much more difficult. In normal 11-man, you can line up in a defense and make a tweak here or there and cover everything. Now, if the other team wants to spread you out, you can’t line up four-man. If they have two tight ends, you can’t have a three-man line. We’ll have to adjust on the fly. It’s going to be an interesting year.”
There won’t be a state tournament for Pine Plains to compete in this season, but there will be a postseason for Section IX.
To conduct a state tournament, there needs to be a minimum of six teams in six sections across the state. If things keep going the way they are, that may soon be a reality.
New York state isn’t by itself in seeing a spike in the eight-man football game, either. Last season Nebraska had 113 eight-man teams while Kansas had 110 and California 108. Texas had 234 schools competing in 6-man football. There is also a nine-man version of the game played in a number of states, including South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Pine Plains begins its adventure into new territory on Sept. 1 when it plays a three-team scrimmage with Dover and Pawling. On Friday, Sept. 7, the Bombers host Roscoe for its regular season opener.
“That’s when we’ll see if we’re heading in the right direction,” Scott said.