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Photo by Jordan Crook

Photo by Jordan Crook

Milford High School Principal Steve Totheroh discusses the possibility of moving to eight-man football with the Hoopeston Area Board of Education Thursday night.

The Hoopeston Area Board of Education held a marathon meeting last week including nearly two hours worth of discussions over the possibility of moving from an 11-man to an eight-man football system.

The decision was spurred by several years of decreasing roster numbers for the district’s football program and the new opportunities offered by the Illinois 8-Man Football Association.

Milford High School Principal Steve Totheroh outlined how Milford’s football program, despite the school having a strong football tradition, was in a pretty dire situation prior to moving to eight-man.

He said the football players were asked what they wanted to do and they unanimously approved moving to eight-man.

It turned out to be the right choice as the Bearcats won the Illinois 8-Man Association’s state championship in their first season.

Totheroh said joining the eight-man association is a two-year commitment.

While eight-man football has been growing in popularity in Illinois, there are still a limited number of teams in the state.

Totheroh believes that once the IHSA moves to districting, which it plans to do in the near future, there will be a big push for eight-man football among many schools Hoopeston Area’s size in Illinois.

Even so, currently there are a limited number of teams and this means teams have to travel great distances to play one another.

While there are several schools in the area that have moved to eight-man, Totheroh said the Cornjerkers would still have to travel pretty far for several of their games.

He said this was one of the major drawback of the eight-man system for many schools.

Totheroh also brought up some potential concerns about the possibility of limitations that could be put in place regarding playoff competition in relation to the size of the student body of a school in the future should the IHSA take control of the eight-man association.

Totheroh said these weren’t etched in stone and were just potential points of concern.

The concern, expressed by several people at the meeting, is that Hoopeston Area and Armstrong-Potomac’s combined student populations would put them over a potential limit in regards to school size and playoff competition in the future.

After Totheroh’s presentation, several coaches, players and parents gave their input on the issue.

Superintendent Robert Richardson clarified early on in the meeting that the discussion on eight-man football was strictly limited to that topic.

He said the board was not considering moving to just a junior varsity football team or eliminating the program for the next season during Thursday’s meeting.

Asst. Coach Glenn Brewer implored the board to give 11-man football another chance for this upcoming season.

He said one of the team’s coaches will be working inside Armstrong-Potomac High School this year, something that they haven’t had before, and Brewer believes this will give the team a better chance of recruiting more players for Armstrong-Potomac than in past seasons.

“We’ve never had a person in that building,” he said. “This year, we have someone in that building and he’s already trying to recruit kids left and right.”

Brewer believes they’ll see more players from Armstrong-Potomac if they give the coach the rest of the school year to build up interest in football among the student population.

“We could see seven to 10 to 15 kids come out of that building, I have no doubt,” he said.

Brewer believes that moving to eight-man will mean the district will have to dissolve the co-op and eliminate those opportunities to grow the team.

Brewer asked the board to give the team at least the next season as 11-man to see what they can do to grow the program in both schools.

“We should give them that year, that chance, that opportunity,” he said. “We can always go to eight-man next year or the year after that.”

While Head Coach Matthew Leskis said he appreciated the passion and heart his players had shown during this season, and that he would want to coach regardless of the board’s decision, when asked by the board for his recommendation Leskis said he would suggest going to eight-man football.

Leskis said he loves football and will coach whatever football is available, but he has to look at what’s in the best interest of his student athletes and there was a time this year where he was nervous for the safety of his players.

“It made me nervous,” he said.

Leskis said the number of players who commit to play now will likely decrease when it gets closer to next season and he’s concerned that they will struggle to have enough players to consistently field an 11-man team.

Though 11-man would be his preference, to field an 11-man football team, Leskis said he would need at least 40 players and he’s not confident they’ll get that many for next season, which is why he recommended eight-man for next season.

He also pointed out that, with the impending IHSA move to districting, Hoopeston Area and Armstrong-Potomac’s student populations are projected to move the team up to 4A competition.

Leskis said the board will then face a decision about dropping the co-op or moving up into 4A competition, which, Leskis said, the team is not ready to do.

“Just being honest, we’re not anywhere near that level,” he said.

Leskis said moving to eight-man would give them time to grow the program.

He said they’ll have to revisit it again next year and there is the possibility that the IHSA’s districting plan may fall through and it won’t be an issue.

Leskis said if the possible restrictions from the IHSA became an issue with the eight-man association, the district would only be committed for two years and could return to 11-man competition after that.

High School Principal John Klaber, who also recommended going to eight-man, echoed Leskis’ concerns about the potential size of the roster next season.

He said going with 11-man could leave the team in a position where they would need to forfeit games during the season simply because they may not have enough players to field a team.

Klaber said this could create issues for some of teams the Cornjerkers would be facing next season since many schools schedule their homecoming or senior night celebrations against the Cornjerkers.

“I don’t want to have to make that call and say ‘Sorry, we’re not coming on your homecoming,’” he said.

Klaber praised the team members and the coaching staff for persevering through this season with a limited roster without needing to forfeit any games.

Klaber said he would support the team regardless of if they went eight-man or 11-man, but he recommended going with eight-man for next season as it would be the best chance for the program to build up numbers.

Football parent Connie Catron raised concerns with the additional travel that would come along with eight-man football.

She pointed to the final game of the football season when Hoopeston Area-Armstrong-Potomac had to travel to Harvard, which is just shy of the Wisconsin border, and the school district wasn’t able to find a driver to take the team there.

Catron said the team had use money raised by the “Gridiron Gang” to help pay for a chartered bus to take the team to the game.

Catron said the money had been earmarked for equipment and meals for the team and shouldn’t have been needed for a bus since the district knew about the game in advance and should have made prior travel arrangements.

Catron asked how the board would be able have the team travel to all these distant schools for a full season if they weren’t able to do so for one game.

“If we are going to be traveling, then how are we going to accommodate our students?” Catron asked.

Football player Chris Catron, who addressed the board via an email, said he had held a players-only meeting for anyone interested in playing next year and said there is definitely an interest in the sport.

He said 30 players committed to play and 10 more showed an interest.

Catron felt that the team had really come together as a team this season and had a common goal of playing at a competitive level.

Catron believes that many other teams in the conference will have lost their foundations in the coming season and Hoopeston Area-Armstrong-Potomac will be in a good position to succeed if everyone commits to succeeding.

Catron expressed his views on eight-man, saying he had watched a game at Schlarman Academy and was, as a player, fairly board.

“Three and a half hours of touchdown after touchdown,” he said. “Nothing exciting really happened. And I just kept watching the clock go by.”

Catron said he doesn’t want their players to get board by the slowness of the game.

Catron also felt that the play style of eight-man doesn’t mesh with the team HAAP can currently field.

“Many are strong, but not quick,” he said. “Although being fast helps in 11-man, eight-man is more about speed and a few of our linemen will not be able to keep up, which means they will lose the opportunity to play as well.”

Catron encouraged the board to keep 11-man.

Another team member, Nathaniel Strawser, also spoke in support of keeping 11-man football.

Strawser cited the team meeting’s outcome and said if they can get everybody from that meeting to play next season they can field an 11-man team.

He added that there are some very talented players on the team whose abilities won’t be showcased as well if they moved to an eight-man system.

Strawser pointed to the eight-man system’s lack of linemen and said HAAP has quite a few linemen on it, so moving to an eight-man squad would mean there would be fewer chances for some of the linemen to play.

“We can’t get better if we don’t play other people,” he said.

Strawser said the team would abide by the board’s decision, but said they would “highly prefer” to stick with 11-man.

Aleigha Perry also spoke in support of keeping 11-man.

Perry said the eight-man system eliminates almost half of the existing linemen and moving to system will force the team to single out the better players.

She said the players will also have to be faster since there is a narrower field of play, which will mean a great deal more conditioning for players.

“With 11-man, we’re used to it, we know what to do,” she said.

Parent Bill Lind said this was his son’s first year with the team and that his son is far from the biggest kid on the field.

“I saw him going against guys my size,” he said. “All these guys were going against guys my size and I’m not little. But they’ve got heart and they want to fight. I just want them to be able to play how and where they want to play.”

Lind said he’s going to continue to watch them and support them regardless of whether they play eight-man or 11-man and he hoped the board would keep the player’s wishes in mind when they made a decision.

After more than an hour’s worth of discussion on the topic, the board decided it was in a position to vote on the eight-man proposal at Thursday’s meeting.

“What’s another two months going to do for us?” Board Member Craig Lee said. “We need to decide tonight.”

Board Member Lawrence Jahn said he’s been with the district for 55 years and he can count on one hand the number of winning football seasons the district has had.

Jahn said he’d like to hear a vote from the total football team about what they want to do for next season.

From what’s he’s heard from players, Jahn said, it seems like they would prefer to stick with 11-man.

He said he would support just sticking with 11-man since they would still have the option to move to eight-man the following year.

Jahn believes that if the team can get others motivated to join and build up the roster to 40-45 players that they could be competitive.

Board Member Lee Cox addressed the football team members at meeting and said the onus would be on them to recruit as many people for next year’s team as possible.

“None of us up here can go out there and get kids to come out for football,” he said. “It’s up to you. We can only support you from here.”

Cox asked for a show of hands from the players who were present at the meeting who were in favor of eight-man and 11-man. No one raised their hands for eight-man, while all of the players present raised their hands for 11-man.

Board Member Rich Eisenmann said he came in with a mindset to vote to keep 11-man and, after hearing more about eight-man, he was still of the opinion they should keep 11-man.

“I came in an 11-man football vote and I still am because of what these [football players] have said, but also there’s enough cons in my mind to not go with eight-man,” he said.

Although he was very impressed with the information Totheroh provided them about eight-man, he said the possibility of being excluded from postseason play didn’t sit well with him.

Eisenmann said there’s no guarantee that the team would have a successful season if they did switch to eight-man for next season and he recommended they stick with what they know for now and revisit the idea after next season.

Board Member Lisa Leigh praised the football team’s dedication and work ethic for getting through a difficult season with their heads held high.

“It was so impressive,” she said.

After further discussions with the board and the audience members, Board President Dave McFadden asked the board for a motion and a second to approve the move to eight-man football.

Leigh made the motion but no other members of the board chose to second it and it died for lack of a second.

Richardson said after the meeting that the district would keep 11-man for next year’s football team.

To watch video of the board’s discussion regarding eight-man football, visit www.thehoopestonchronicle.com.