Six-man teams have their day in the sun
Saturday, Oct. 27 was a big day for six-man football in Oregon.
Six-man football is in the first year of an OSAA pilot program. Fifteen teams took advantage of the opportunity to play six-man rather than eight-man football at the Class 1A level.
Those teams knew going in that there would be no playoff opportunities. Still, they made the decision to drop down to six-man for a multitude of reasons, from safety, to competitive balance, to not even having enough players to play an eight-man season.
"It saved our program," said Powers athletic director Sam Stevens. "We wouldn't be playing football this year if not for six-man."
Eddyville athletic director Garrett Thompson agreed.
"We haven't had a team in nine years," Thompson noted. "It's a huge deal. Our current head coach, he got to play two years of football at Eddyville when he was in high school, and then after that, we didn't have a team, so it's been a long time for us."
Thompson noted that when the six-man schools had a clinic in Hermiston, the coaches and athletic directors who were there discussed having a non-sanctioned playoff.
That didn't happen, but the coaches continued their discussion in September and decided to have a one-day event with teams from Special District 4 playing against teams from Special District 5, the two 1A districts that played six-man football this year.
Eventually that day was finalized for Saturday, Oct. 27 at Madras High School with the No. 4 team from each league playing each other, followed by both No. 3 teams, then the No. 2 teams, and finally the league champions.
For Special District 4, which had six schools, that turned out to be no problem as they were already finished with their regular season prior to the crossover event.
McKenzie, the league champion with a 6-1 record, won the district championship. Powers was second, 5-2, Gilchrist third, 3-3, and Eddyville Charter fourth, 3-3.
For Special District 5, the day presented more of a challenge as that weekend was originally scheduled to be the final week of the regular season.
As a result, they had to determine who their champion was and who was second during an athletic directors meeting.
Joseph, who was leading the league with a perfect 6-0 record, was given first place, while Harper Charter, who had lost to Joseph earlier in the year, was awarded second with a 6-1 record.
Echo, who did not get to play Joseph, was given third place, also with a 6-1 record as they had lost their game with Harper Charter, while South Wasco County was given fourth place with a 6-2 record.
Special District 5 promptly asserted their dominance as South Wasco County whipped Eddyville Charter 65-13 in the opening game of the day.
"It means a lot," South Wasco head coach Mike Wayne said of the win. "To come off of five years of being physically mismatched with bigger schools to be able to play with schools of equal size. It's the pilot year, so we knew that there wasn't going to be a playoff, so this week of practice, we really emphasized that this was the last week of the season and that we have nothing to lose."
South Wasco County athletic director Jim Hull as also pleased with how the season had gone.
"We haven't had a winning season in a league since the fall of '08," he said. "We started playing an independent schedule because we were concerned about the safety of our kids more than anything else. Our kids would get concussions and maybe academic issues and then all of a sudden you are fielding nine guys to try to play an eight-man game and people are getting really beat up, and then our coaches would ask them to go back in because there's no one else to play. We had some pushback when we decided to go to six-man, but as soon as we started having success, that kind of went away, and all of a sudden, we started getting more fans coming to watch. It's been the right move."
The team's quarterback, Garrett Olson, was also pleased with the switch to six-man football.
"It's been a lot of fun, and we are actually winning games now instead of being blown out by 40 or 50 points. It kind of sucks that there's no playoffs, but the fact that we were able to have another game kind of like a playoff was pretty cool."
Game two was more of the same as Echo defeated Gilchrist 55-0, keeping Special District 5 undefeated against Special District 4.
"We played one game with only eight kids, so it was definitely necessary that we moved to six-man," Echo head coach Rick Thew said. "Today was important to us. We talked about the end of the season making statements and making sure that people knew that we needed to be in the talk of the top teams. It's the best my team has looked at the end of a season my whole coaching career."
"This was so much fun to come out here and get a win out of my last game," Echo quarterback Devan Craig added.
Despite the loss, Gilchrist lineman Gage Dodson was still happy with the opportunity to play.
"I came from La Pine High School, and it's been this ginormous change," he said. "I'm really happy because it's a close brotherhood, and it's like a family here. I really like six-man football, and it's been amazing to come from last year when we weren't even close to the playoffs and this year be able to come out and battle against the best. It means a lot, and it's a real cool thing to do."
In the third game of the day, Harper Charter kept Special District 5's streak alive with a 71-8 pounding of Powers.
"I think it kind of finishes our season out," Harper Charter head coach David Marker said. "It means a lot to see what the other side of the state's got. We love six-man football. We can actually compete at six-man football. We have 34 kids in our high school, so it fits our lifestyle right there."
Stevens was pleased with the opportunity, even though the Powers team struggled during the game.
"The kids love it," he said of six-man football. "The community, I think some of them were a little hesitant at first, but once they realized it was either that or don't play football, they accepted it, and now, I think they embrace it. It's fun to watch, and it's a good game."
Special District 5 proved their dominance in the final game of the night as Joseph outscored McKenzie 64-31.
"It means the world to this team," Joseph head coach Duncan Christman said. "It's been a great season for the kids. This has been the first winning season the team has had in six years. Our seniors were in seventh grade the last time we had a winning season. It really gave them a confidence boost."
Win or lose, spokesmen for all eight teams who made the trek to Madras are sold on six-man football.
Universally, they hope that the OSAA continues the pilot program. In addition, they all want to eventually have a state playoff.
That may well happen sooner than expected as there are reports that more schools are going to opt out of eight-man football and switch to six-man next year.
Those schools include Sherman County, which just three years ago was an eight-man state powerhouse. However, school attendance has dwindled, and this year, Sherman County had to cancel the final portion of their season as they did not have enough players to finish an eight-man season.
Thompson noted that his coaches are actively trying to talk other schools that have dropped football because of a shortage of players into resume playing, taking advantage of how few players are necessary to make it through a six-man season.
"If they want to cut their pilot program and give us a playoff next year, that's what I would really like," he said. "I think the OSAA is definitely on our side. They would like to see that happen. It's just a matter of how quickly we can make that happen."
"What I see is that we are going to gain some six-man schools next year," Hull said. "I know that we probably wouldn't have been able to finish if we had been forced to play eight-man this year. Six-man is closer to basketball where one or two good players can totally change the personality of your team, where in eight-man, one or two good players is not enough to win against a good team."
In addition to wanting a playoff, the other big issue for both athletic directors and coaches is making sure that it is the right 1A schools that drop down to six-man.
"I think that they need to keep it simple," Christman said. "This is keeping football alive. This is something that is going to get those smaller schools and kids interested in the program. We all discussed at our coaching meeting that it was a safer year all the way around for our kids as far as injuries."
"I think that the OSAA ought to just set a cap at say 60 kids per high school," Marker said. "Anything over that, too bad. Anything under, and you get to play six-man. It was made for small schools, not those big schools that want to come down and participate in it."