TRAVERSE CITY — For anyone whose eyes have been glued to the turf, a look around the northern Michigan football landscape reveals noticeable change.
The conference realignment resulting in the three-division Northern Michigan Football League was a major shift, but a more subtle one helped drive it.
Eight-man football is gaining steam across the state.
In the last few years, the number of teams has been climbing steadily, and in northern Michigan alone — where schools are faced with decreasing enrollment and increasing desire to provide avenues for their student-athletes to be successful — programs have made the jump.
Since 2011, the first year the MHSAA recognized an 8-man champion, the likes of Onaway, Pellston, Manistee Catholic Central, Grand Traverse Academy — formerly Traverse City Christian — and Forest Area have all transitioned.
GTA and Forest Area just made the switch for this season, and Bellaire, a local team who accepted the game in its early stages, jumped from the Ski Valley Conference to the Bridge Alliance League in 2010 and played in the inaugural 8-man state title game in 2012.
Those programs entering the eight-man game facilitated the NMFL relocation for teams like Central Lake/Ellsworth, Mesick, Onekama, Gaylord St. Mary and more.
“I’m excited about the growth of (eight-man),” Bellaire head coach Brock Robinson said. “The league we’re in is a full 10-team league. We’re not playing anybody new in the regular season, but I expect there to be complete new leagues popping up sometime in the near future with the amount of teams that are changing.”
Forest Area left the Ski Valley, which no longer exists in football altogether, for the West Michigan Eight-Man League and Grand Traverse Academy joined them, leaving the Northwest Six and it’s former Sabres mascot behind.
The Warriors ended their final season in 11-man with just 13 players on the varsity roster and went 0-6 in Ski Valley play. GTA (as TC Christian) had lost 22 games in a row dating to the program’s last win in 2013.
Forest Area quarterback Hollis Thomas believes the change is for the best.
“We had no choice,” Thomas said. “We thought about (changing) last year, but we didn’t. And we ended up getting stomped in conference.”
Playing the eight-man game can certainly help the level of competition within a program struggling to field the numbers it needs for a successful team, but entering the eight-man game hardly guarantees success.
As the number of teams competing at that level increases, so too does the level of play.
This season 52 teams will compete in eight-man football, but just 16 teams make the postseason bracket. Six wins has generally meant a playoff berth in past seasons, but in 2016 there is no magic number.
“You’re still going to have disparity at times with teams that are 0-9 or 2-7, but I will not be surprised if there is a 6-3 team that does not make the playoffs,” Robinson said. “Six wins won’t guarantee things in eight-man the way it is right now.”
Robinson said the decision to keep the playoff pool small was been made to help gain respect in the sport, partly from 11-man purists who felt the eight-man game removed the challenge of qualifying for the playoffs in the same manner as the eight 11-man divisions.
It’s not like most, if not any, of the schools going to the eight-man game have had much of a choice, like Thomas said.
Even Grand Traverse Academy had 16 or 17 players available at times last season, but eventually injuries forced the Sabres — now the Mustangs — to forfeit four games. That’s roughly 10 percent of the number of games a high school football player will play during his or her career.
Forest Area will have enough players to field a JV team as well.
“If we were still 11-man, we’d be one team,” Forest Area head coach Brian Mumby said. “There’s no way we can go into a schedule with 13 kids and play 11-man. In eight-man, we have some leeway.”
On top of being able to play without fear of a team-ending injury, kids feel like they can compete again.
“I think we’ll do pretty good,” Thomas said. “Last year, the other team would have 11 good people, and we’d just have like eight good ones. They’d outnumber us. This is evening it out a bit, so we’ll be able to compete against better teams and hold our ground.”
Before even taking the field this season, senior Mustangs running back and linebacker Connor Camp simply knew the team would have more success.
“We’re ready,” Camp said. “Eight-man will be a good change for us. We’re going to be a lot more successful in eight-man.”
Coach Robinson believes in two year’s time, the eight-man game will encompass more than 60 schools in the state, which could lead to the expansion of the playoffs, and he hopes the Eagles can restart their eight-man middle school program after a three-year hiatus.
The game’s still growing, and it’s look like it will continue to do so for the right reasons.
“We went to 8-man to keep the boys playing ball and having success,” Robinson said.