I was covering a high school game years ago with only two or three reserves on the Hartford touchline, and I thought this team had to play eight-man football.
Arkansas’ introduction of 8-man soccer in 2018 came too late for Hartford, who merged with Hackett in 2014. But 8-man soccer has kept a number of programs alive across the state, including Decatur, which has had to lose games or not field a team for even a few years while I struggled to play 11-man soccer.
More than 20 schools in Arkansas played 8-man football last season, a welcome development that allows athletes at the smallest schools to compete. The difference today is that there are now eight schools in either Class 3A or Class 4A (Genoa Central, Mountain View, Fountain Lake, Cutter Morning Star, Subiaco Academy, Rose Bud, Cedar Ridge, and Marshall) that have decided to host May 11 -Dropping man soccer in favor of 8 man soccer.
The latest is Fountain Lake, who voted 5-0 at a school board meeting last week to accept the move from the Classes 4A-7 conference and play 8-man football for the 2022-2023 cycle. Not only is Fountain Lake a Class 4A school, the Cobras are right in the thick of enrollment.
However, they have opted for 8-man soccer even though it is considered a club sport and not a sanctioned sport for Class 4A and 3A teams by the Arkansas Activities Association, the governing body for high school sports in Arkansas.
“That was one of the toughest decisions I’ve made as a head coach,” Fountain Lake coach Kenny Shelton told the Sentinel-Record newspaper in Hot Springs. “For the past three years we’ve been in our early to mid-20s. A few more kids decided to quit earlier in the week. Our numbers went dramatically in the wrong direction, so those talks have intensified in the past Tuesday.”
Fountain Lake, which won the 2009 Class 3A state championship 13-1, plans to return to 11-man football after the two-year cycle. But his decision last week leaves the remaining teams in the 4A-7 conference struggling to find games. Genoa Central declared 8-man football in March, leaving the 4A-7 conference with just six teams.
Instead of playing 10 games, unless these teams can find a replacement, they will only play 8.
“I doubt we can fill those (open) dates,” said Doug Powell, Waldron’s athletic director and football coach. “Those two games were at least a coin toss where we had a chance to win, but now we don’t have that chance. Every chance to win is important when you’re trying to build a program like we’re doing here.”
Steve Roberts, who oversees high school football for the AAA, said the declaration for 8-man football long after conference assignments and schedules were finalized made the situation worse.
“It’s not what eight-man football was designed for,” said Roberts. “The timing of the decision is unfortunate. Very unfortunate.”
The other question is whether it’s fair for 4A and 3A grade schools to play eight-man football against schools that have decided they don’t even have enough players to compete in 2A, the smallest classification in Arkansas . Powell trained at Class 2A Magazine for years, so he understands the difficulty of fielding a team. He said the problem is part of a larger trend as students increasingly choose not to play high school or junior high football.
“If kids don’t succeed at that, they won’t do it,” Powell said. “That applies to all areas, not just football. It’s in the classroom or at work.”
The AAA can’t stop a team from falling down to 8-man football. Even Class 7A teams can sign up for 8-man soccer if they want to. But perhaps the rule should be changed to insist that teams who opt for 8-man football have to stay there for two or three cycles, rather than returning to 11-man football after just one cycle.
Seems fair to me, especially for the teams struggling at this late hour to find substitute games for the teams that just left.