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The OSAA is moving forward with nine-man football at the 2A classification - and not everyone is happy about the change.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Isacc Solis catches a ball at Culver High School's first fall practice last August. Solis is one of the many seniors on the Bulldogs' roster in 2022, and that senior-laden squad is one reason why head coach Brian Silbernagel is not happy that the OSAA decided to have schools at the 2A classification play nine-man football starting this year.

Ready or not, nine-man football is on its way to Oregon.

The Oregon School Activities Association voted over the summer to change the way football is played at the 2A classification — and it might take some time for folks to get used to the new-look game.

What is nine-man football?

Nine-man football is not a terribly new invention; versions of the game have been played for years in a handful of states. States such as Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming have all embraced the nine-man game at the high school level.

Now, schools in Oregon's second-smallest tier are getting ready to do the same.

COURTESY IMAGE: NFHS - The NFHS regulations for nine-man football call for a smaller field than in the 11-man game. The field is just 80 yards between each end zone, while the sidelines have been moved in by five feet on each side.During a six-month period from October 2021 to April 2022, the OSAA's Football Ad Hoc Committee heard testimony, held votes and ultimately came to its decision to implement nine-man football at the 2A level. Meanwhile, schools in higher classifications will continue with 11 players on each side of the ball, while 1A schools will either play eight- or six-man football, depending on their enrollment numbers.

In nine-man football, the main difference from a personnel standpoint is the fact that there are two fewer offensive linemen. The game is also played on a condensed field, per the National Federation of State High School Associations. The nine-man field only goes 80 yards between end zones, instead of the normal 100 yards, and each side of the field is shrunk down by five yards. The result is a more wide-open game than the 11-man version, with fewer blockers eating up space, though it is not quite as free-wheeling as the six-man game.

MORE FOOTBALL CHANGES: Madras, Crook County headed east for football

Why make the switch?

One of the main drivers behind the decision to drop from 11 to nine players, according to the OSAA, is easy portability from one format to the other.

"Transitioning from 11 to 9 and 9 to 11-player has become common amongst all classifications," wrote then-OSAA Assistant Executive Director Brad Garrett in the committee's December 2021 update to the public. "Bridging this gap will allow varsity teams to match up with a similar opponent in non-league play regardless of division or game type."

Garrett also added that nine-man football has slowly been gaining a foothold in Oregon's sub-varsity levels for some time now.

"Schools have been utilizing the nine-player game type for more than 10 years to provide additional opportunities for kids at the sub-varsity level," he wrote. "We have seen an increase in the number of these games in recent years and in some cases an expansion into the Varsity level of play in order to contest a game. Bottom line is (that) in many ways, the nine-player game is already has developed a sub-culture of competition with Oregon."

Those sentiments were shared by Gaston High School head coach and athletic director Gary Hedin, who spoke with the Forest Grove News-Times earlier this year.

"We always have to play freshmen and sophomores at the varsity level," Hedin said in January. "So, to have fewer players would mean we wouldn't have to play as many of those guys and we could probably get a junior varsity program more solidly in place."

"We played a 9-man game last year against Neah-Kah-Nie," Hedin added, "and it didn't really take much to change our offense or defense."

While Gaston High School is feeling good about the transition, not every 2A program feels the same way.

FULL STORY: Gaston, Forest Grove eye potential changes to football status

Does one size really fit all?

Brian Silbernagel, the head football coach at Culver High School, believes that while it is indeed possible to switch back and forth between the nine- and 11-man games, it's far from an ideal situation.

"Looking at the logistics of Culver and what would best suit our needs," said the coach, "I thought it was to remain at 11-man."

As a result, Silbernagel made his voice heard during the OSAA Football Ad Hoc Committee's process, voting 'no' to the nine-man proposal. However, he was outvoted by the other coaches in the classification, so nine-man football is on its way.

Silbernagel felt that his Bulldogs were well-suited to compete in the 11-man game this year, and more pointedly, that the drop to nine players will make it harder for him to find a replacement opponent in the event a game is cancelled.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Culver head coach Brian Silbernagel, left, voted against the recent move for 2A schools to play nine-man football. Silbernagel notes his own team's high participation numbers and the lack of other 2A schools nearby as reasons for being against the statewide decision."We're not in the predicament that a lot of 2A schools are," said Silbernagel, who points to a roster heavy on upperclassmen and a big incoming freshman class. "We're going to be one of the older, senior-led teams in our league. The more seniors you have, the stronger a team you are."

As such, this one-size-fits-all move to nine-man football is taking away one of the Bulldogs' on-field advantages: veteran experience.

Moreover, there are no 2A schools within a two-hour drive of Culver, and most of the closest ones are already in the same league as the Bulldogs. So, if a league game were to suddenly come off the books for whatever reason — last season, it was a mix of COVID protocols and poor air quality due to wildfires — it will be a scramble to find a new opponent. While that may not be a major issue at the varsity level, Silbernagel worries about the volatility the change will bring for his junior varsity squad.

"By going to nine-man, we're really limited in what we can do if a JV game gets canceled on us in the valley," Silbernagel explained. "That's the one reason I'm really against this: there's no other nine-man school around us."

Assuming they could find another 2A opponent outside of their league, Culver would be staring down a drive of more than two hours — in each direction. The closest 2A schools outside of the Bulldogs' football special district are: Oakridge High School (2 hours, 21 minutes); Central Linn High School in Halsey (2:40); Grant Union High School in John Day (2:45); Lowell High School (2:46); and Heppner High School (2:49).

As for playing up against a higher-classification team, the 'easy portability' between nine-man and 11-man football — which the Ad Hoc Committee touted while making its decision — may not be so straightforward.

In the past, when a cancellation occurred, Silbernagel would simply call up one of the bigger schools in the area — such as those in Madras, Prineville, Redmond, and Bend — to schedule a game for his varsity Bulldogs against the opponent's JV squad. With the recent format change, though, he is hesitant to ask his own players to adjust to a different game on the fly.

"It would be selling our JV short to practice nine-man, and then halfway through the year say, 'Oh, this Monday, we're doing 11-man against a team in the Valley.' That conversion is tough."

As for whether those bigger schools might consider playing with just nine men to accommodate Culver, Silbernagel says that won't be happening.

"I wouldn't do that," he emphasized. "They would laugh me out of the room if I did."

So, in the meantime, all Silbernagel can do is get his team as prepared as possible for the coming nine-man season — and to keep his fingers crossed that he doesn't have to deal with too many cancelations this year.

The 2022 high school sports season opens with fall practices beginning Monday, Aug. 15. The first football jamborees will be held Thursday, Aug. 25, with contests beginning Thursday, Sept. 1.

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