BY DENNIS CHASE, Sports editor
---- — For Bellaire, it was a matter of survival.
Struggle to stay afloat in 11-man football, drop down to 8-man or perhaps disband the program altogether.
It turned out to be an easy — and smart — decision.
Eight-man football it was, starting in 2010.
"That was the only way we could keep it going," Eagles coach Ron Bindi said. "It just got to the point where we had to do something."
The Eagles struggled with numbers in their final two years of 11-man, resulting in 1-8 and 0-9 finishes. At one point, Bindi was down to 13 players. The school even tried a co-op arrangement with Alba. It didn't work. The JV program was in trouble, too. In fact, the school had to cancel games in 2008 and then the JV squad played some 8-man opponents in 2009.
That's when officials made the decision, one that made perfect sense to Bindi.
"It was an opportunity for kids to still play football," he said.
Since dropping to 8-man, Bellaire has thrived, going 25-8 in the last three years. The Eagles will play for a state title Friday night against Deckerville.
Bellaire started the season 0-2, but has won nine of its last 10 games. This with a roster of 13 players — four seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen.
Bindi had been exposed to versions other than 11-man football at previous stops. Six-man football was an option in Texas while he was attending East Texas State. He later worked with the Grand Rapids Rampage in the Arena Football League, where eight players start.
"I told the kids (the first year) that these are the cards that were dealt," he said. "But I said, 'What's the difference? We're still going to practice. We're still going to run our offense, run our defense. We're still going to tackle.' The kids bought into it and away we went."
Bellaire went 9-1 in 2010 and played Carsonsville-Port Sanilac in an unsanctioned title game.
The MHSAA started sanctioning a tournament last year after more schools signed up for 8-man.
The Bridge Alliance league that Bellaire plays in has grown from six schools to nine in three years. Only two of the schools are in the Lower Peninsula, which is why Traverse City Christian jumped to 11-man this season. Travel became too much.
With declining enrollments, though, more and more schools are facing the dilemma Bellaire dealt with three years ago.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome is perception. Bindi's response?
"I hear people say all the time, 'You're playing 8-man football. That's not real football. That's this. That's that.' You know what? I've got one kid playing up at Northern (Michigan), although he's hurt right now. Last year I had Reece Koepke. Colleges were talking about having him come and play football, but he's down at Olivet. He chose to play basketball instead. I've got three kids right now that colleges are calling me about. The quarterback at Rapid River, he's phenomenal. Trust me, some college is going to pick him up. The Detroit Lions have a defensive end (Ronnell Lewis) who played 8-man in Oklahoma. If you're good enough, if you can play football, guess what? Colleges will find you."