Eight-player football is coming to Illinois next fall and Westminster Christian will take part in it.
With football participation numbers decreasing in recent years at high schools of all sizes, schools like Elgin's 192-student Westminster Christian are finding it increasingly difficult to interest enough players in the sport to maintain a traditional 11-on-11 program.
Westminster initiated its varsity football program four years ago. Participation numbers were sufficient for the first three seasons, but the roster dipped to 19 last fall, though the Warriors (6-4) qualified for the Class 1A playoffs for a second straight season.
With only 10 players expected to return next season, athletic director Rick Palmer took steps to preserve the school's involvement in the sport due to its cultural importance.
"Football has been a very positive experience here at Westminster and we didn't want to lose it," Palmer said. "Football brings the school together. We've had homecoming under the (temporary) lights the last couple of years. It's exciting."
Alden-Hebron athletic director John Lalor and North Shore Country Day athletic director Patrick McHugh met with the Illinois High School Association football advisory committee in Bloomington on Dec. 7 to pitch the need for 8-on-8 football, Palmer said.
Lalor at that meeting presented results of an informal survey that showed no fewer than 40 schools had responded with interest in trying the sport. The IHSA agreed to categorize eight-player football as an "emerging sport."
According to its bylaws, the IHSA's Emerging Sports Policy "is designed to establish parameters under which schools may engage in competitive sports activity even when state tournament series competition is not available for the sport."
Eight-player high school football is competed in 17 states, often in rural areas with small populations. The game is typically played on a field 40 yards wide instead of the standard 53.3 yards, according to 8manfootball.net. Illinois eight-man fields will still measure 100 yards in length, Palmer said, though some states opt for 80-yard fields.
Offensively, teams play with two fewer lineman and one less running back, wide receiver or tight end.
Defensively, most teams line up with three linemen and a combination of five linebackers and defensive backs.
Otherwise, the game is fundamentally the same, according to Mike Gross, who takes over as Westminster Christian coach for John Davis, who stepped down last fall after four years. Gross works for Pro Sports Experience, which runs NFL youth camps for kids 6-14.
"You still have to block, you still have to tackle, you still have to throw the ball and catch the ball," said Gross, a Westminster assistant offensive coach the last four years. "If a player wants to play in college, this won't affect him because it's still fundamentally the same game and the eye in the sky doesn't lie. You can either play or you can't. It comes down to blocking and tackling."
Westminster Christian's nine-game schedule next fall includes four Illinois schools: Alden-Hebron, North Shore Country Day, Rockford Christian Life and Lake Forest Academy.
Those teams have formed a new league with six Wisconsin schools: Valley Christian, Oakfield, Elkhart Lake, Abundant Life, Marantha and Wisconsin Heights. The new conference will be called the State Line Eight-Man Football League, Palmer said.
Westminster's ninth game will be against Williams Bay, Wis., a school it played in 11-on-11 two seasons ago. Williams Bay did not have enough players to field a team last fall, Palmer said.
"We do want to have 11-man football again someday, but we feel this is an option for us to keep our football program alive and be able to compete against different schools," Palmer said. "The game looks a little odd at first because you notice there are three less players, but once you get going it's still about blocking, tackling, hitting, running, throwing, catching and kicking. It's different, but it's an exciting game to watch. We're just excited to keep football here."