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Forgive Jason Ellington for getting so excited.
It's just that last fall the Camas County High School head football coach wasn't even sure if he'd have a team to draw up plays for.
"Every year we seem to be losing students, and it seems to be getting worse and worse,” Ellington said. “With our enrollment going down, you never know how many kids are gonna be coming out for football. [You even think] are some of them not gonna come out?"
For some schools, this negative “what-if” became a reality. Murtaugh high school had to forfeit the rest of its games halfway through the season because the Red Devils didn't have enough guys on the sidelines.
As Gooding High School geared up for another football season, North Valley Charter—the small school right down the road—faced an unfortunate decision.
"We anticipated 14 to 16 kids turning out for football, and at the end of two weeks we had 6 varsity candidates and four freshmen,” North Valley head football coach Ed Simons said. “There's no way that we could play 8–man football with just 6 kids."
"They were disappointed,” Simons added. “One of them went to Shoshone. One of them went to Dietrich. The other [one] went to Gooding.”
He paused before his next statement.
“The rest of them didn't play.”
* * *
Taking the game of football away can really hurt a high school and community, so certain athletic directors, coaches and the Idaho High School Activities Association found a way to give it back.
"We worked really hard on trying to figure out what else there was, and we thought, ‘there's 6–man football,'” Ellington said. “So we pursued it hard and heavy and got a lot of schools involved."
One of the main people involved was Dr. Tim Perrigot, an IHSAA board member and Minico’s head football coach.
"You take a look at Idaho and what's happening in the small towns. Those towns are not growing. If anything they're shrinking,” Perrigot said. “We want to give those kids that don't have an opportunity to co–op with other schools a chance to play football."
Earlier this week, the IHSAA board of directors voted unanimously to start a 6–man football league starting next season. It will include a three year trial period, and schools will be responsible for organizing their schedules and a post-season tournament.
“When we pulled the numbers, there looked like there was about 7 or 8 schools that could probably want to play [now]," Perrigot said.
One of those school was North Valley. Simons played 6-man football in the Marine Corps at Camp Smith in Hawaii years ago, so he knows the game well.
Now, he's just excited to give back to his players and the game that's taught him so much.
"I can take a group of young men. I can teach them just as much about fundamentals— team work, hardwork, attitude [and] preparation as I can in 11–man.”
In every region of the United States you can find 6-man programs. Montana, Texas, Nebraska and Florida are just a few places where this game is very popular.
"Players have gone onto division I scholarships from 6–man programs in Texas and in Florida,” Ellington said, “so I mean it's not that talent can't be found in 6–man."
“I remember watching an 8-man game in the state of Washington several years ago, and they had a 230 lb. lineman,” Simons said. “He was on defense, and he dominated the game.”
“The very next year he was starting for Notre Dame! Now come on! If you’re a football player, they’ll find you whether you’re playing 6-man, 8-man or 11-man,” Simons said.
Now for those of you that think in terms of X's and O's, here's how 6–man works:
1. You've got three guys on the line, and three guys in the backfield, so you lose 2 guys on the line.
2. Your field size is smaller—it's 40 by 80 [yards], and it's 15 yards for a first down.
3. Your quarterback can't rush, unless he hands it off or passes it before advancing past the line of scrimmage.
4. Everyone is an eligible receiver, so you could have a typical center acting as a wide receiver.
5. Defensively you'll see a lot of man-to-man coverage, but a zone could happen if you've got a speedy team.
The 6-man game is fast and fun, but not everyone is on board with these changes.
“I think there's some schools—especially 1A division II schools—that are concerned that it might pull a number of those schools,” Perrigot said. "They don't want to lose schools from their classification because it does affect representation. It screws up their play–off bracket and everything else."
"My only concern would be if they're gonna force a team to play in 6–man versus 8–man,” Lighthouse Christian head football coach John van Vliet said. “As long as you have a choice to play up in the 8–man division versus the 6- man [division] then I think it'll be alright.”
The Lions head coach does agree that the game is a way for these small schools to have an opportunity.
“For those schools, if it's the only way they can keep a football program going, I don't think it's a bad thing," he said.
Other division II schools, like Carey High School, still need a bit more convincing, and Perrigot and board members are doing the best they can to field concerns.
"What we've tried to explain to them [is] that if those teams can’t play them anyways, it doesn't matter [because] that game doesn't exist," Perrigot said.
As for the rest of the critics, Simons had a simpler message.
"It doesn't make any difference whether they're playing 6–man, 8–man 9–man or 11–man,” he said. “The outcome [is] gonna be the same—one's gonna win, and one's gonna lose.”
With the outcome and decision made this week, small schools like Camas County and North Valley were finally on the winning end of this back and forth game.