Amboy's Austin Norman gets behind the defense of AFC for a TD.
Amboy's Austin Norman gets behind the defense of AFC for a TD. — Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com

A few years ago, an op-ed article in the Sauk Valley Community College student newspaper suggested that Amboy Clippers football was soon to be "extinct."

Take that for what it's worth, says this Skyhawk alum, but it did address a concern about low numbers in the coming years.

The Clippers struggled with numbers this season, and they cancelled the junior varsity schedule as a result.

With as much following as football has in Amboy, students, coaches, administrators, alumni and residents certainly don't want their program to be "extinct."

Tough decisions are made when a football program's numbers reach a point to where safety becomes an issue. Before a couple of years ago, the only two options were to seek a cooperative or drop the program entirely.

Then came 8-man football, and Amboy can look no further than a half-hour drive up U.S. Route 52 to find out how successful that has been for Polo's state-title winning football team this year.

The point has reached the consideration stage for Amboy, whose school district addressed the topic Wednesday at a school board meeting. Athletic director George Schwamberger shared numbers by class, down to fifth grade, as well as concerns that a sparsely numbered varsity program can have.

"The key is for us to get back to a situation where we can have a fresh-soph team," Schwamberger said. "If we don't do that – If I was a freshman, 5-foot-nothing, I wouldn't want to scrimmage against the varsity every day in practice."

To aid his argument, he invited Polo athletic director Ted Alston to share its transition story in front of the board.

"We were not a losing program, but we saw what was going to happen," Alston said. "We had to try to get ahead of this because it's just not going to work."

Amboy ended last year with 26 kids in the entire program. Before switching to 8-man after 2018, Polo ended with 23. The Marcos actually gained another six kids who wanted to join to give the new style of football a try.

Polo coaches and administrators surveyed the kids to see how they would feel about the inevitable options: either co-op with another school, likely Milledgeville; or try this 8-man concept.

"Overwhelmingly they wanted to stay Polo," Alston said. "They said that they'd rather be 8-man and still be the Polo team than co-op. They just wanted to keep their own identity.

"The kids didn't care at all. They were still tackling, they're still running, they're still doing all of those things."

Better yet, Polo was able to field a junior varsity squad this past season. Sure, only 11 players at minimum can make a varsity team, but that's with everyone playing with no breaks. That's tough on high school kids.

Schwamberger predicted that the Clippers would have just 33 players to start next season. With injuries and preseason departures, numbers appear to be thin for the next few years. That will mean having underclassmen play upperclassmen on varsity when they perhaps may not be ready.

"If you're in the position where you're forced to bring freshmen and all of your sophomores up to play in varsity games, you're not going to be successful," Schwamberger said.

The NUIC schools want to keep each other in the loop as to what the future of their programs are going to be. They'll play 11-man football next year, and need to let the 8-man league know by January what Amboy's intentions are.

No decision was made Wednesday, but the board will need to know soon. Schwamberger said that this situation needs to be taken care of first before he can hire a head coach for next season to replace the retiring Gary Jones.

David Koch of Amboy is in favor of the move to 8-man. He has a son in eighth grade.

"We all love to have 40 kids stand on the sideline, but it's not happening. This gives us a chance for us to start having some success again. If you can get that success back, I think the numbers will come back."

The Clippers' territorial draw ranges from Harmon to Sublette in Lee County to Ohio and Arlington in Bureau County. They co-op with La Moille and Ohio, who add nearly 100 more students to the equation for a total of just over 300 kids.

Numbers crunches happen to programs whether they are traditionally strong or weak. One strong program could win a state title one year, but may see a scout team as a pipe dream in a few years.

After winning its first 10 games in 2018, Milledgeville went 1-8 this past season. Its program has struggled with low numbers in the past, and played freshman on the varsity level that contributed to successful teams by the time they were seniors.

That doesn't always happen, though, and even the Missiles are looking at the 8-man option. The Chadwick-Milledgeville school board will vote on the football program's fate on March 17.

The Missiles' only win last year was against AFC, who ended the season with its second straight winless campaign. AFC made its decision this winter; they'll enter the 8-man ranks in 2021.

Hiawatha and South Beloit are joining 8-man this year, and soon that number will grow to the point where travel won't be much of an issue.

Schwamberger said a few more NUIC schools are considering the move, but declined to say who. If those schools ultimately decide to make the move, it may mean the end of divisional play in the conference. When that happens, those schools that are barely hanging on will have Lena-Winslow, Forreston, Eastland-Pearl City and Dakota on their schedules.