Brayden Stevens of Telstar hauls in a pass at the goal line for a first-half touchdown in front of Sacopee Valley’s Mitchell Thurlow in Bethel in September. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

There comes a time in every sports writer’s life where he or she comes to a crossroads.

They form opinions on a particular subject, only later to realize they were wrong.

With this in mind, a confession is in order. Today is my day to repent.

When the Maine Principals’ Association announced in April that eight-man football was coming to Maine, I thought it was a joke. It was gimmick football, I told anyone who would listen. To me, it was no different than the Canadian Football League or the Arena Football League. Sure, it was played with a football, but was it REALLY football?

Why should a school go the eight-man route instead of exploring a co-op with someone?

Look at Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale, and the success that team has had. Use it as a blueprint.

Six months later, I’m here to tell you I was wrong. I was dead wrong. And I’ve never been happier to be wrong.

On Oct. 18, I covered Maranacook against visiting Mt. Ararat in Readfield, two of the top teams in the Eight-man Large division. The Ricky Gibson Field of Dreams was packed that night, throughout the stands and down the fencing to the entryway of the stadium. It was Maranacook’s homecoming, but several fans told me it was the biggest turnout for a football game they had seen in at least six years.

The game itself was like a heavyweight fight, with the Black Bears and Eagles both trading scoring blows. Maranacook’s Garit Laliberte performed a rarity — rushing, throwing and receiving a touchdown — to make the night even more special.

In that moment, I began to forget the field was 13 1/3 yards narrower, or that there were three less players on either side of the ball. It was good, clean, entertaining football. And Maranacook walked away with a 34-24 victory.

“(Eight-man) saved this program,” Maranacook head coach Jordan DeMillo said. “When you go (11-man) with 20 guys, you’re just going to have so many blatant weaknesses. A single injury hamstrings you. In eight-man, I’ve dealt with injury, I’ve dealt with ineligibility, and I’ve got kids that can sub in and actually play. The community is 100 percent bought in.

“The words I heard at the beginning of the season were, ‘Eight-man is not football.’ Our (Mt. Ararat) homecoming was just nuts. That was easily the biggest crowd we had. The community has bought in, the community loves it. I love it. At first, I was like (holy cow), what a learning curve. But I tell you what, it’s saved our program, and we’ve had a hell of a time this year.”

Maranacook (9-0) has enjoyed a strong season, and it will once again face Mt. Ararat in the Eight-man Large championship Friday night, battling for the right to play in the state’s first eight-man state championship game.

For Mt. Ararat, the change to eight-man involved a variety of factors. A Class B school based on enrollment, the Eagles had struggled for some time. Thanks to eight-man, Mt. Ararat not only has played well, it’s also been able to field a junior varsity team, which is pivotal for a program’s growth.

“We were a program that didn’t have JV games for the last few years because of factors — injuries, numbers, things like that,” Mt. Ararat athletic director Geoff Godo said. “If there’s one thing I believe eight-man provides a little bit more of, or a better option at least, we were able to get JV games played on Mondays and allow some of our younger kids an opportunity to compete with teams and other kids that are near their age and ability. It gives them an opportunity to develop a little bit.”

Godo also said co-op teams are not as easy to put together as high school fans might think.

“There’s regional restrictions with co-ops, and I think you’re going to find in a lot of places, there’s political reasons that go against co-ops,” Godo said. “It’s not always as simple as people think. We put a lot of thought into (going eight-man), as did, I know, a lot of other schools. They want to provide the opportunity (for kids). Let them play.”

Eight-man has indeed saved football in some communities. Bethel-based Telstar High School — with an enrollment of 199 students — simply could not field an 11-man football team. A team with a history of struggles, the Rebels encountered success this season, winning three straight at one point.

“I think it has saved our program,” Telstar coach Tim O’Connor said. “Between us and Boothbay, I’d say we’re the small schools of the (Eight-man Small) league. For us to field a team of 20 kids, we’re feeling pretty good.”

This season proved that eight-man football can not only work in Maine, but it can thrive.

I still hope that eight-man programs can someday return to 11-man should numbers allow.

I also hope that 11-man programs struggling with with numbers can get past tradition and pride and keep the need for a stable program as the focus. If that means going eight-man football, then do it.

So, eight-man football, please accept my apology. This was the change we needed.

Dave Dyer is a sports reporter at the Kennebec Journal.


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