The 8-man football revolution continues to grow.
The Illinois 8-Man Football Association officially admitted six teams recently, increasing its membership to 22 schools with several more programs strongly considering the move as well.
It's entirely possible that membership in 8-man football could reach nearly 30 teams by the beginning of the 2020 campaign, which would likely leave the 11-man membership at less than 500 eligible programs for the first time in IHSA history.
The reasons for each of these schools making the move are varied, but the predominant reason seems to be simple lack of program numbers – a strain severely reduced by the switch to 8-man.
"Our enrollment is dropping and the last couple of years we have co-oped with Quest Charter just to have a football team," Peoria Heights athletic director Matt King said. "But even with that, numbers were still an issue. We saw this as a way to kind of solve an issue that we've always had.
"And also being able to compete against schools in our size. The Prairieland Conference has 1A, 2A and 3A schools and we struggle to compete at the 1A level. So when you look across the field and see 60 or 70 guys, there just aren't many years where we are going to be able to compete with that."
Veteran coach Jason Kirby will take his Biggsville (West Central) team into the 8-man football ranks in 2020 as well. Kirby has 21 years of head coaching experience at multiple stops and enters the 8-man experience with equal portions of excitement and trepidation. But in the end, it was a move he felt the program had to make in order to ensure its survival.
"Our numbers have gotten so low that we are unable to field a JV football team and it was going to continue to dismantle our football program," Kirby said. "Those few kids that would have gone out as freshmen, and the kids that are freshmen and are going to be sophomores, aren't going to play varsity and they are going to be relegated to holding a shield in practice and on Friday nights standing and watching. That's going to be a pretty tough sell.
"Those kids would likely not continue to play, and if they didn't continue to play, not only would we not be able to field an 8-man team, we wouldn't have a football program in a couple of years."
Kirby has spent in an inordinate amount of team trying to acclimate himself to the 8-man format and suspects that process won't be stopping anytime soon.
"My learning curve has to be great," Kirby said. "I'm apprehensive to be honest because I don't know and I don't have the ability to talk to people that I have in the last 25 years. When I had a question, I could call my friends, its completely different now in that aspect. So I'm very nervous in terms of that, but I'm very excited for our kids and our community. I think this is an opportunity for us to have a level playing field with everyone that we are going to compete with."
Here's a breakdown of the eight teams – including Kirland Hiawatha and Peoria Heights, which had previously been accepted – that will move to 8-man football for the 2020 season.
• Biggsville (West Central)
IHSA Enrollment: 248
Wins over the last five seasons: 12 (4-5 in 2019)
Last State Playoff appearance: 2012
Motivations for the Heat to change to 8-man football: The program has struggled for years, and particularly since the Lincoln Trail Conference had become an almost clear division of the haves and the have-nots. Biggsville has made the playoffs just two times in school history since the program – then known as Biggsville (Union) – had a runner-up finish in the 1981 Class 2A playoffs.
What it means for the league they leave behind (Lincoln Trail Conference): West Central's defection leaves the league with an odd number of teams, as seven teams are left from last year's membership that are playing 11-man football. The league may have to endure a year of an odd-numbered membership before becoming a different odd-numbered membership. In a move when district play was still expected, the conference accepted two members from the Prairieland Conference (Abingdon and Knoxville) to join the league for other sports when it was expected the conference affiliation for football would not matter. Although there seems to be a non-zero chance of the Prairieland Conference becoming unraveled. So there might be another free agent or three (to make 12 teams) available to even things out in the near future. For the time being, a number of the remaining teams have taken Ottawa Marquette on to their schedules to fill the open date created by the West Central move.
• Decatur Lutheran
IHSA Enrollment: 126 (Cooperative team with Mt. Pulaski for total enrollment of 288.5)
Wins over the last five seasons: 26 (1-8 in 2019)
Last State Playoff Appearance: 2017
Motivations for the Lions making the switch: Former Decatur Lutheran coach Craig Bundy got his team to the playoffs in three of his last four seasons, but even as the veteran coach left the program prior to the 2019 season to become an assistant as Decatur MacArthur, cracks were forming in the foundation of what an 11-man program needs. Numbers have always been an issue for the program that was formed at the beginning of the decade (2010).
What it means for the league they leave behind (Lincoln Prairie): The league seemed to anticipate this possibility as it moved from a league formerly known as the Little Okaw Valley to this format, which strangely had teams playing between seven and nine league games as a 10-team grouping. Some of that was to protect long-standing rivalry games such as Tuscola and Arcola, with those two teams playing in different conferences. The logical move would simply be to reduce the league membership from 10 to eight (as Blue Ridge is also making the move to 8-man football), provided no other teams in a conference dominated by Class 1A squads also makes the jump.
• Farmer City (Blue Ridge)
IHSA Enrollment: 227.5 (Cooperative team with DeLand-Weldon for total enrollment 284.5)
Wins over the last four seasons (Blue Ridge dropped varsity football for three seasons from 2013-2015): 12 (2-7 in 2019)
Last State Playoff Appearance: 2001
Motivations for the Knights making the switch: The 8-man football level was likely something that was motivated by the problems that schools like Blue Ridge face. The school actually lost its football program for a few years during this decade, eventually playing a season as a junior varsity program before returning to the varsity ranks in 2016. Numbers have been a consistent problem for the program, but kudos to the commitment for doing everything it could to keep it going. Once programs fold, they usually don't return.
What it means for the league they leave behind (Lincoln Prairie): The joint move of both Decatur Lutheran and Blue Ridge leaves the Lincoln Prairie with eight teams, which is a manageable number. Oblong-Palestine, which is an independent and a former conference member of many teams in the Lincoln Prairie, could be readmitted to the league, but that would give them an odd number of participants. Obviously not an ideal situation.
• Kincaid (South Fork)
IHSA Enrollment: 90.5 (Cooperative team with Edinburg and Morrisonville for combined enrollment of 264)
Wins over the last three seasons (program began in 2017): 16 (1-8 in 2019)
Last State Playoff Appearance: 1994
Motivations for the Ponies making the switch: As the numbers above clearly indicate, the Ponies have had real problems climbing the ladder in whatever league they have found themselves in. South Fork, on the surface, appeared like an ideal candidate for moving into the 8-man game and it seems somewhat surprising it hadn't happened sooner.
What it means for the league they leave behind (Prairie State): This conference has been a collection of schools that have had a hard time finding a permanent home for awhile, and odds are this might not be the last team that leaves the loop for the 8-man game. The league might try to soldier on as a league ineligible for an automatic playoff berth (you need six teams in order to do that), but in any case this is a league that has historically had trouble making much of a dent in the postseason fray regardless.
• Kirkland Hiawatha
IHSA Enrollment: 168.5
Wins over the last five seasons: 31 (9-2 in 2019)
Last State Playoff Appearance: 2019 (lost in second round of Class 1A playoffs)
Motivations for the Hawks making the switch: Hiawatha committed to making the move prior to the finish of a very successful 2019 season, but some serious issues, particularly schedule-wise, weren't going away anytime soon. Hiawatha's enrollment is always going to be a deterrent to really strong program numbers, and while the Hawks weren't in dire straights yet, they decided to take a proactive approach by making the transition before it would have become an almost mandatory move. Scheduling had been a real challenge for Hiawatha that required doubling up with Ottawa Marquette, a nonconference date with a team from Missouri and an open-date forfeit from Varna Midland when that school abruptly dropped its program. It didn't appear that problem was going to resolve itself very easily either.
What it means for the league they leave behind (Northeastern Athletic): This league has seen its membership whittled down for years through a variety of circumstances and now it seems extremely unlikely that the league will continue. The conference had already been forced into doubling up against some league opponents to fill schedules. The conference is left with just three teams with Hiawatha and South Beloit leaving. It was somewhat surprising Hope Academy wasn't extended an olive branch as a former member of this league as it was left out of the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference merger, but if even if that was done now, it might be too late to salvage things.
IHSA Enrollment: 112
Wins over the last five seasons: 6 (3-5 in 2019, was unable to fill all nine schedule slots)
Last State Playoff Appearance: 2003
Motivations for the Blue Streaks making the switch: Without a cooperative partner, Martinsville frequently finds itself among the smallest schools in the state that had been maintaining an 11-man program. The Blue Streaks were the third smallest this year behind Orangeville and Freeport Aquin. Program numbers had been so low that it was often difficult for the Streaks to complete schedules as witnessed by the fact that they took a forfeit loss in 2019 due to a lack of healthy players. It's been a slippery slope in that regard for several seasons, which is understandable for a school that would need nearly 50 percent of its available students playing football to allow for an average-sized program.
What it means for the league they leave behind (Independent): Martinsville had an extremely odd schedule, including one matchup with Lowpoint-Washburn, which only played one 11-man game all season and the rest of its slate as an 8-man team. It also included two other teams making the transition to 8-man football this coming year (Blue Ridge and Kincaid South Fork). There were just four teams on the Streaks' schedule that will have to fill the vacancy that Martinsville leaves, including one in Oblong that seems unlikely to keep fighting uphill as an 11-man team much longer either.
• Peoria Heights
IHSA Enrollment: 206.5 (ended cooperative agreement with Peoria Quest Academy at conclusion of 2019 season)
Wins over the last five seasons: 10 (0-9 in 2019)
Last State Playoff Appearance: 2015
Motivations for the Patriots making the switch: The Patriots announced last year that they would be making the move and have had some time to get everyone on board with the switch. There's a rather distinct disparity between the top and the bottom of the teams in Peoria Heights' conference, and being one of the smaller schools in the league, it had become increasingly difficult for the program to bridge the gap. The Patriots will end their cooperative arrangement with Peoria Quest, which will cause them to take a bit of a numbers hit, but it should be offset by the need for fewer players at the 8-man level.
What it means for the league they leave behind (Prairieland/Blue): The defection of Cuba (North Fulton) somewhat late last season left the Prairieland imbalanced. There were just five teams in the Black Division and six in the Blue Division. Peoria Heights was in the Blue, which would leave each division with five. It seems logical that the league would go closed with its remaining 10 teams rather than two five-team divisions, but the even number of remaining members gives it options as to how to proceed. If no other changes occur, the league's membership will be at 10 memebers still playing 11-man football for just a year as Knoxville and Abingdon are leaving for the Lincoln Trail conference in 2021-22.
• South Beloit
IHSA Enrollment: 262
Wins over the last five seasons: 13 (2-7 in 2019)
Last State Playoff Appearance: 2002 (Won Class 1A State Title)
Motivations for the Sobos making the switch: South Beloit popped up on the scene in 2002 and raced to a state title. The Sobos weren't able to sustain that momentum and haven't been in the playoffs since. In the time since the Sobos have bounced through three conferences, failing to get much of a competitive foothold in any of them, including a decade-long stint in the powerful Northwest Upstate Illini Conference, which while ambitious, never allowed them to get anything moving in a positive direction.
What it means for the league they leave behind (Northeastern Illinois): As mentioned in the Hiawatha capsule, it seems unlikely that this conference will be able to carry on. With just three teams currently committed to 11-man football, it may simply become a loose affiliation of teams similar to the West Central Conference that also has been whittled down to three teams. Ottawa Marquette has already taken a proactive stance to the issue reaching out to teams that have lost games to other 8-man defectors. The odds are the other teams in that league will probably have to take the same tact in filling out a schedule.