Alden-Hebron head coach John Lalor, whose Giants finished as state runners-up in last year's inaugural Illinois 8-Man Football Association playoffs, has been a driving force behind 8-man football's rapid growth in the state.
Alden-Hebron head coach John Lalor, whose Giants finished as state runners-up in last year's inaugural Illinois 8-Man Football Association playoffs, has been a driving force behind 8-man football's rapid growth in the state. — For Shaw Media | Gregory Shaver

When examining the massive schedule changes caused by the conference switches across the state in these last couple seasons before statewide district scheduling is set to take the place of conferences in football, it might be easy to overlook the fledgling Illinois 8-Man Football Association.

The growth of the 8-man game, however, as well as its effect on traditional 11-man football's conferences and playoff scenarios should not be ignored ... nor should the changes the current 16 schools ready to take part in the I8FA's 2019 season will be seeing to their schedules.

A half dozen programs — Champaign Judah, Lake Forest Academy, Rockford Christian Life, Jacksonville Illinois School for the Deaf, last year's runner-up Alden-Hebron and defending 8-man champ Milford-Cissna Park — return from the 2018 campaign and have seen their 2019 schedules solidified, bolstered and radically altered with the addition of 10 new potential, in-state 8-man opponents.

"We are very happy to have a nine-game schedule this year compared to an eight-game schedule last year," said Milford-Cissna Park head coach Clint Schwartz. "We had a couple of bye weeks during the season last year, and we don't have any this year, which is a good thing, (and) we are going to play all of our games on Friday nights this year compared to playing some games on Saturdays last year.

"All nine of our games are against schools in Illinois, and all nine games are against different schools. Last year, we played a couple of teams twice in the regular season."

Schwartz's Bearcats are slated to play opponents from last season such as Lake Forest Academy in Week 1, Alden-Hebron in a title-game rematch in Week 5 and Champaign Judah in Week 8, with the remainder of Milford-Cissna Park's schedule filled with opponents new to the 8-man game.

"We are really happy with all of the new teams joining the Illinois 8-Man Football Association, said Schwartz. "The more teams that join, the shorter road trips become. ... 8-man football saved football for our school, and we are so thankful for the other schools that have made the decision to move to 8-man."

The situation is similar for most of the other returning members, although Alden-Hebron has a nine-game schedule which includes six returning opponents, two of them from out-of-state — Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Week 1, Lake Forest Academy in Week 2, Milford-Cissna Park in the aforementioned Week 5 showdown, then Williams Bay (Wisc.), Rockford Christian Life and Champaign Judah in Weeks 7, 8 and 9, respectively.

Lake Forest Academy will have three returning opponents — Milford-Cissna Park to open the season, Alden-Hebron in Week 2 and Rockford Christian Life at home in Week 4 — and six new foes.

Rockford Christian Life, too, has a nine-game schedule with three opponents back — Lake Forest Academy in Week 4, Mazomanie (Wisc.) in Week 7 and Alden-Hebron in Week 8 — and then six new foes, opening with a Saturday afternoon visit to Edwardsville Metro-East.

Only two of the eight opponents on Champaign Judah's slate are back from last season — Milford-Cissna Park and Alden-Hebron to finish the season — while Illinois School for the Deaf has a vastly different seven-game schedule with only games against Wisconsin School for the Deaf and Kansas School for the Deaf back from last season ... although head coach Dave Cook suspects his program likely played its Oct. 19 opponent this season, Pawnee, at some point in its history.

"This season we will have four new teams (in) 8-man, which are Polo, Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland, Judah Christian and Pawnee, and also three deaf out-of-state schools," Cook said. "This year should be good, as nine seniors-to-be are in the program. ...

"We (should) have a great fall season with the local football games, and 8-man is still exciting. Spread it out and play ball!"

I8FA's 10 new members — Lowpoint-Washburn/Henry-Senachwine, Polo, Pawnee, Hanover River Ridge, Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland (FCW), Elgin Westminster, Edwardsville Metro-East, Danville Schlarman, Cuba North Fulton and Bunker Hill — come from different backgrounds.

Some, such as Schlarman, Bunker Hill and Lowpoint-Washburn/Henry-Senachwine, come out of now broken-up co-ops and are venturing out on their own via the 8-man game. Metro-East Lutheran was an independent in 2018. Elgin Westminster canceled its 2018 season, before that playing a year of 8-man and prior to that competing in the Northeast Athletic Conference.

The rest have migrated from various 11-man conferences to join, including Polo and River Ridge from the Northwest Upstate Illini, Pawnee from the Prairie State, Cuba North Fulton from the Prairieland Black and Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland from the Class 1A/2A powerhouse Heart of Illinois Conference.

Needless to say, all of their leaving — wherever it may have been from — caused ripple effects in the 11-man game while also completely transforming their schedules from seasons prior.

That includes FCW with nine entirely new opponents — on the road against Elgin Westminster on a Saturday afternoon to open the season, Metro-East Lutheran, River Ridge, Milford-Cissna Park and Rockford Christian Life; at home against Pawnee (Week 2 at Flanagan), Jacksonville ISD (Week 3 at Woodland), Champaign Judah (Week 7 at Flanagan) and Cuba North Fulton (Week 8 at Woodland).

"We are going to rebuild our program," said new FCW head coach Todd Reed. "I'm truly excited about this new adventure, and I'm hoping to bring the pride and respect back for the FCW football program that it once had. I'll try my best to get a spark lit for the program."

Cuba North Fulton went 5-4 last year in 11-man, and this year as the Wildcats move to 8-man head coach Elliott Craig believes his program will face nine teams it has never encountered in the program's history. That includes four home games to open the season versus River Ridge, Milford-Cissna Park, Schlarman and Pawnee, a road game at Elgin Westminster, one last home game Oct. 4 against Champaign Judah and then road games at Metro-East Lutheran, FCW and Lake Forest Academy to close out the season.

"This will be our first year of playing 8-man football here, and our players, coaches, admins and board are all excited to see it," Craig said. "I don't believe in our school's co-op history that we have ever played any of our nine opponents. ...

"I think whatever our record ends up being this year in 8-man, it was the correct decision for our school and players. In future years, we may only have 20 or less players, so it only makes sense. Most of the other schools that are doing this are in the same situation numbers-wise, (so) I think it will make things very competitive for everyone and a more equal playing field."

Lowpoint-Washburn/Henry-Senachwine, coming out of the dissolved River Valley co-op which played in the Northeastern Athletic Conference, has a six-game schedule which as of this writing includes three meetings with Bunker Hill — Sept. 21 and Oct. 12 at Bunker Hill, Oct. 26 at Flanagan-Cornell High School (with LW/H-S lacking facilities, as Midland's campus in rural Varna hosted River Valley home games) — as well as a Sept. 14 game at Rockford Christian Life, a recently-added and intriguing Oct. 5 visit to 11-man-playing Martinsville and an Oct. 19 visit to Lake Forest Academy.

Danville Schlarman and Elgin Westminster both have eight-game schedules filled with all I8FA opponents. Pawnee has a nine-game, all-I8FA schedule, as do both Metro-East and Bunker Hill — though three of Bunker Hill's games are against the same team, aforementioned Lowpoint-Washburn/Henry-Senachwine.

River Ridge and Polo leave the Northwest Upstate Illini together, and like many of the I8FA's new members have almost entirely new-slate schedules aside from the continuation of their rivalry with each other.

For River Ridge, that includes a nine-game schedule with games at Winfield Mt. Union (Iowa) in Week 2, at Polo in Week 8 and seven contests against fresh I8FA faces — Cuba North Fulton, Lake Forest Academy, Alden-Hebron, Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland, Rockford Christian Life, Danville Schlarman and Milford-Cissna Park.

"Our schedule is completely new with the exception of Polo," said Wildcats head coach Doug Nicholas. "We are looking forward to each week, as we are unfamiliar with every opponent. Leaving the NUIC, we will miss rivalry games with Stockton, Galena, Aquin, Orangeville and Milledgeville, but again we are very excited for our upcoming schedule. ...

"Eight-man seems to be the right fit for us based on numbers alone. We are able to field what we feel is a solid team in 8-man, where in 11-man we had difficulty doing that in years past."

The Polo Marcos will have home games against Schlarman, Bunker Hill, Metro-East Lutheran, Lake Forest Academy and old conference foe River Ridge; road visits to Jacksonville ISD, Elgin Westminster, Alden-Hebron and Pawnee.

"Our schedule this year is completely new," Polo head coach Jeff Bumsted said. "We have no idea how good the teams are, or for that matter how good we are. Every team will be a test for us because of our first year in 8-man. ...

"Our team is very optimistic for success. There are no teams we really know about, so no preconceived notions about who is good and who is not. We have to assume everyone is good but also beatable. ...

"8-man has given our program a huge lift."

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This is the third in a four-part series outlining the schedule changes caused by conference shakeups affecting teams in and around Starved Rock Country. Looks at the Illinois Central Eight and Northeastern Athletic are available at FridayNightDrive.com. Upcoming is the rebuilt Interstate Eight.