VHSL Explores Creating League for 8-Man Football

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As a handful of private high schools from across the commonwealth are participating in a new eight-man football league this year, the Virginia High School League is now exploring this nontraditional version of the game as well.

The reason eight-man football is catching on here in Virginia is simply out of necessity.

Due to safety concerns, an increase in number of athletes specializing in just one sport, and schools offering a wider variety of activities than ever before, the interest level in high school football is down state-wide.

But the goal of eight-man football is to allow the kids who still have an interest in playing a way to play the game they love.

“Football is football,” John Blake, the head football coach at St. Anne’s-Belfield (STAB), said.

That's the message Blake reiterates for his team participating in a full season of eight-man football for the first time.

“I’m not gonna say it saved the program, because we could probably struggle through an 11-man season, but struggling through an 11-man season and not being positive about, it I don’t think that’s what we want here,” Blake said.

With a 7 percent decline in high school football players across the state over the past five years, STAB began dabbling in the nontraditional eight-man game last year.

“The first eight-man football game I coached in last year, that was 64-56 here, was probably the most exciting football game I’ve ever been involved with,” Blake said. “It won me over the first game.”

The game itself is not much different than traditional 11-a-side football, just fewer players and a narrower field.

“Fundamentally, there is no difference, there really isn’t, we tackle the same way, we block the same way,” Blake said. “It’s a great possibility and great opportunity for schools with low numbers.”

Blake says the eight-man game can even be safer than traditional football because fewer kids are forced to play both sides of the ball, and that means fewer opportunities for injury.

“If you’re playing 11 guys and you have 20, then there’s probably more two-way action than possibly in the eight-man game,” Blake said.

This season, seven private high schools in the commonwealth - including central Virginia's STAB and the Covenant School - formed an eight-man league.

“I think this is a great opportunity for the state,” DeWayne Robinson, STAB’s athletic director, said. “This is something that 30, 35 other states have already ventured into, and what we’re really trying to do is find a way to keep the sport of football alive in Virginia.”

With four public schools unable to field 11-man teams this year, the Virginia High School League is looking for ways to integrate the eight-man game as well.

“It could be a scenario where we have 11 players, 11-man football on varsity, and eight-man JV football so that you have enough kids to play,” Billy Haun, VHSL’s executive director, said.

Right now, VHSL has no specific game plan, but envisions a new league similar to the one in which STAB plays.

“You always try to learn instead of reinvent the wheel, you try to learn from people that have already done it,” Haun said.

Haun's biggest concern is the logistics of putting it all together.

“That’s the problem - if you go to eight-man football, you’ve gotta have somebody to play,” Haun said.

Both Haun and Blake agree that a move to the eight-man game will not have any negative impacts on the college recruiting process for players.

They pointed to Texas, where some of the nation's best high school players are found playing both eight and 11-man football.

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