Gray-New Gloucester High School quarterback Danny Stash hands off to running back Jeremiah Pye during a July practice in Gray. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

After months of debate followed by more months of speculation, curiosity and conjecture, eight-man football finally officially kicked off with an NFL-style special Thursday night opener when Old Orchard Beach hosted Telstar in the first Maine Principals’ Association eight-man football game.

The trained eyes looking down from the bleachers at Joe Regina Field observed a narrower gridiron. Everyone noticed six fewer bodies on the gridiron.

The blue-padded goal posts hadn’t budged, still facing each other 120 yards apart. Once the first whistle blew, the action on the field resembled every 11-man game played on OOB’s home field, which sits little more than a post pattern away from the ballpark where the Maine Guides drew fans and flies a little more than 30 years ago.

Aside from the number of players and the field’s 40-yard width (13 1/3 yards shorter than an 11-man field), one would have to look closely and know some of the more intricate rules of football to tell the difference from 11-man football.

When all is said and done, though, one team will be raising a gold ball in November.

The 10 teams in Maine’s eight-man football division are playing in part to prevent becoming extinct like the Guides. The MPA divided the 10 into two five-team divisions, small school (Telstar, Old Orchard Beach, Traip Academy, Sacopee Valley and Boothbay) and large school (Gray-New Gloucester, Mt. Ararat, Yarmouth, Maranacook and Ellsworth/Sumner).

After the schools tossed their hat into the eight-man football ring, state football rules interpreter Ralph Damren traveled around the state to educate high school officials and coaches on the rules.

The meetings weren’t marathons. The National Federation of State High School Association’s (NFHS) football rule book contains one section of rules for six-, eight- and nine-man football that is a little more than a page long.

“There really aren’t any major differences,” he said.

Maranacook scrimmages against Old Orchard Beach during the preseason in Readfield Both teams are playing eight-man football this season. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Like 11-man football, offenses are required to have a minimum number of players set on the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap.

“You have to have five guys on the line of scrimmage, as opposed to seven, and three guys in the backfield,” Damren said.

Any less than five players and flags will fly for illegal formation, the same penalty for having less than seven on the line in 11-man football.

Discerning eligible receivers from ineligible receivers may be more difficult, at least early on.

In 11-man, all one usually has to do is look at the uniform numbers. Players wearing numbers 1-49 or 80-99 are automatically eligible in 11-man football. Eight-man offers not just the possibility of the husky kid wearing number 66 catching a touchdown pass, it practically encourages it.

There’s no numbering requirement whatsoever,” Damren said. “The two guys on each end (of the line) and the three guys in the backfield are always eligible, regardless of their number.”

Damren suggested coaches may want to “take a mental record of who is on the end of the line, because that could be a challenge where you’re not limited to a number anymore.”

Eight-man seems to be a mad scientist offensive coordinator’s dream.

Snapper-eligible touchdown passes?

“If he’s on the end of the line he is (eligible),” Damren said.

But eight-man doesn’t really give coaches many more chances to get creative with formations than 11-man. Damren quickly pointed out the “snapper” (the person who snaps the ball, not necessarily the center) is also eligible in 11-man football under certain circumstances as long as he is wearing an eligible number.

Eight-man games are generally higher scoring than 11-man games, but not due to coach creativity. A missed tackle or missed coverage is more likely to be fatal for a defense in eight-man simply because there are less teammates to cover for a mistake.

Gray-New Gloucester football coach Brian Jahna uses Mikey Ryan for a demonstration during a drill in Gray in July. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

At least the rule-makers gave the defense a break with the narrower field.

“The rationale of having it 40 yards wide is with eight guys on the field, it tends to become wide open,” Damren said. “If it was the same width as 11-man, you’d wind up with 90-80 scores or along those lines.”

Like 11-man, defenses in eight-man can line up however they wish. Most teams remove one player from each level, line, linebacker and secondary. During the summer and preseason, eight-man coaches said finding out what schemes and formations worked would be the biggest challenge. Many of their offensive concepts in 11-man translate to eight-man, but they virtually had to start from scratch on defense.

Nothing changes in the kicking game, in terms of rules. Placekicking is often de-emphasized in Maine high school football, particularly at smaller schools where it is difficult to find a kicker, but some schools may scrap field goals and PAT kicks altogether and only try two-point conversions because blocking eight with six can be more problematic than blocking 11 with nine.

Games will still be officiated by five-man crews, as in 11-man football. An NFHS rule change, which applies to eight- and 11-man football, now gives the offense 40 seconds after a play ends to snap the ball again.

Under the current format, teams could be battling for a playoff spot up to the final play of the regular season. At the end of the regular season, the top four teams in each division will play each other to a division championship, with each division winner squaring off for the state championship on Nov. 16, one week before 11-man finals.


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