Football season is almost here again; teams are practicing, and teams will be scrimmaging against themselves across Illinois and Iowa next Friday night. The first kickoff in the college and high school seasons is barely two weeks away.
For many teams, especially in Illinois, the sight of 11 players popping pads and making tackles will soon be -- or already is -- a thing of the past.
Schools both small (Alden-Hebron, enrollment 111) and large (Whitney Young in Chicago, enrollment 1,885) have seen their 11-player teams go by the wayside at least temporarily in one recent season or another due to low turnout.
This is causing scheduling problems across Illinois and Iowa, which has caused both states to adopt district plans. Iowa has been using theirs for a number of years, while Illinois' plan is scheduled to go into effect in the fall of 2021.
(Without going too much into the details, district scheduling breaks up local rivalries and increases the travel time and expenses of already cash-strapped athletic departments. It is a monstrous system, at least in Illinois, and I hope it will be reversed before it goes into effect.)
The main response, at least in Illinois, has been co-ops, in which multiple schools join up to form one team. Some of these have been stable (Erie/Prophetstown, for instance), but it’s always awkward because half the team has to travel for “home” games and practices, not to mention the split gate receipts.
So schools have to adapt. Whitney Young got interest back up, but Alden-Hebron, along with a growing number of other Illinois schools, took an approach that Iowa has already made official: eight-man football. This variation of the game, featuring three dedicated linemen and four eligible receivers, has been around a long time.
My father remembers being embarrassed in high school when his team had to forfeit their 11-man schedule and play eight-man football one year; it’s now a normal part of Iowa high school football, with more than 60 teams, including the consolidated version of his old high school, playing every year.
It’s getting more common in Illinois too, and it’s allowing small-town programs that would otherwise shut down or consolidate to survive. Minnesota and the Dakotas sponsor nine-man football instead.
And a few states out West sponsor six-man football, a wild sandlot type of game where every offensive player, including the center, is an eligible receiver. (Scores in the 90s are common.)
There’s no shame in these alternative games, and they are getting more common. But it’s not just recently that these sorts of alternatives have evolved. A few states — notably including Iowa -- long featured six-on-six girls basketball.
Iowa girls played six-on-six exclusively until 1985; some teams elected to play six-on-six until 1993, when it was finally phased out. The game had three players on each side of the half-court line, limited dribbling, and a host of other unusual innovations. The six-on-six game also featured one statewide tournament without regard to enrollment.
Cinderella stories (or, if you will, Hoosiers stories) were common. Small schools like Manilla, Adel, and Lake View-Auburn dominated the state tournament into the 1970s, often beating big schools in the process. And even after five-on-five was allowed, some big schools stayed in the six-on-six game -- Ankeny won state in 1985, four years after five-on-five was opened up to all schools.
Things are changing now, but they always have. We should celebrate this as a new year dawns.