Spruce Mountain senior Isaac Parker (3) warms up in front of a line of football players at the team’s first practice of the season Monday in Livermore Falls. Adam Robinson/ Sun Journal

Eight-man football is rarely the first choice for high school football coaches, but after a couple of successful years of the format in Maine, Spruce Mountain’s David Frey and Mountain Valley’s Devin Roberts have come around on the idea.

On the first day of fall sports practices Monday, the coaches and their players, are looking forward to their teams’ first seasons of the altered playing style.

Frey wishes the Phoenix could have started eight-man football in 2020, when they had only one senior and were primed for a learning year. Nevertheless, the 2021 Phoenix are ready to adjust to football on a slightly thinner field. Frey said that the shorter width alters Spruce’s spread offense, but the sixth-year coach has some plans up his sleeve.

David Frey, head coach of the Spruce Mountain football team, directs his players during the first day of fall sports practices Monday in Livermore Falls. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

“You’ve got limitations with the spread in eight-man, so I revamped it into a pistol style,” Frey said. “I may go tight with a tight end. It’s going to be an experience this year. The first controlled scrimmage will show me what I need to tweak. … You don’t know what they’re going to throw at you on defense.”

Frey so far has been preparing practices, schemes and game plans alone because he doesn’t have any assistant coaches to start the season.

“I lost assistants and nobody applied. And I asked several people, but it’s quite the commitment,” Frey said. “The summer’s been good. Just getting the guys here was a huge thing.”

Both Frey and Roberts have been watching film of eight-man football to familiarize themselves with the playing style. The two coaches see the benefits of using run-heavy schemes. 

“I’ve kind of done some research and looked at it, and it’s basically whatever they come up with offensively, we just have to adjust to it,” Frey said. “I think it’s going to be more running than passing. We were kind of a mixture (with 11-man).”

“We have got a lot of speed and I think we can use that to our advantage,” Roberts said. “I have noticed in a lot of the games I watched that if you can make one or two guys miss, your speedster is gone. I think we can use that to our advantage and if we can get our quick guys in space, one-on-one, then we can win that battle eight times out of 10.”

Gabe Winson runs through pads during Mountain Valley’s first practice of the season Monday in Rumford. Adam Robinson/ Sun Journal

Players on both teams are excited about the prospect of getting on the field and playing football again, especially after the 2020 tackle football season was wiped out by COVID-19 and replace with 7-on-7 touch football.

“Excitement level is definitely up there,” Spruce Mountain senior Camden Phillips said. “We are eager to get out there and hit somebody, and it’s the first year we can actually have people in the stands again, so we are excited for that.”

“I’m so excited,” Mountain Valley junior Robert Leveillee said. “Two years is a really long time not to play ball.”

The prospect of the Falcons playing eight-man took some convincing from Roberts — starting with himself.

“At first when we sat down with the AD, I thought in my head that I’d rather lose two more seasons horribly than do eight-man,” Roberts said. “Then I really sat down with myself and said, ‘All right, we finished with 17 guys one year, 20 the next, so we are in that position.’ To play the game safely and get this opportunity from the state, it’s a good one. Instead of getting to potentially a point where you have to think about shutting the program down, we have a chance to keep it alive and play eight-man football.”

Mountain Valley junior Robert Leveillee runs drills at the Falcons’ first practice of the season at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford on Monday. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

Then Roberts had to get the players on board.

“When I first broke this to them that we were going to play eight-man, a lot of them were bummed, said they wouldn’t play, but they’ve come back,” Roberts said. “Since I have explained things to them, showed them the game, and I said the same thing I said to my coaches, ‘Everyone has to wear a helmet, still wear shoulder pads, you guys are still going to block, tackle, and we are still going to play football.’ It’s just three less guys on the field.

“Once I said that, they said, ‘Oh, we are still playing football. All right.’ They were OK with it. I had to swallow my pride and say, ‘We have to do this eight-man thing to play football.”

The players bought in pretty quickly, and now Leveillee and his fellow running back Grant Carrier are ready to get going.

“I was confused,” Leveillee said. “We had never played eight-man and I knew it was different from 11-man. The speed game. I heard about the speed game and I was ready for it. Coach said that if they miss one tackle then they’re done for, and you just put the burners on and you’re gone.”

“I was a little disappointed at first,” Carrier said. “I then listened to coach and he said there were still players that went to school for it, there are still opportunities and it’s still football and you’re in pads. I’m looking forward to it.”

At Spruce, expectations are high with the group that includes eight seniors. 

“I feel like our team is pretty good,” senior Evan Hamblin said. “I have been with this team for years, we’ve won youth championships with this team and we work well together. I’m fine with eight-man, as long as I get to play football.”

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