8-Player Takes Flight in Upper Peninsula
September 28, 2017
By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – Three yards and a cloud of dust. That was the highly successful version of football applied by veteran Ohio State coach Woody Hayes as big bruisers dominated the game.
It certainly is not the preferred style on the fields of 8-player football. Nope, this version is much more open-field and definitely more exciting, full of big plays and a ton of scoring.
Take Powers North Central as the prime example. The Jets have won the last two 8-player MHSAA championships with back-to-back 13-0 seasons, piling up yards and points in their first two seasons in the 8-player game with a large group of skilled athletes.
Their winning streak ended at 27 games earlier this season, but the style they displayed with exceptional athleticism led by Jason Whitens and Bobby Kleiman has caught on with many other programs.
The Upper Peninsula, at the forefront of the 8-player game due largely to decreasing enrollments, has been lighting up the scoreboards this year. Teams like Pickford and Cedarville, Rapid River and Stephenson, Ontonagon and Crystal Falls Forest Park are progressing with the same formula as North Central by featuring explosive offenses.
Citing some 8-player detractors who don't think the game is real football, veteran Cedarville coach Scott Barr said, "I don't think anyone can argue that it (8-player) has not been healthy for football. It has been healthy."
The game is thriving in small schools because the 8-player version simply has allowed football to remain in the athletic program despite shrinking enrollments across the state.
"It has allowed us to keep football," said veteran coach Steve Ostrenga of Rapid River, who led the Rockets into 8-player Finals in 2011 and 2013 and into the playoffs every season since making the switch after going 1-7 in 11-player in 2010.
"We did it out of necessity. We may have waited too long," added Ostrenga, recalling that last year of 11-player football when only one sub was available at several games.
Veteran Pickford skipper Josh Rader has an idea why the 8-player game has met approval at so many small schools. "It is a high-octane game. It is a lot of fun to watch," he said. "It puts a lot of pressure on defenses because it is such a wide open game. It makes it exciting for the fans."
No longer do fans have to squint and squirm in their seats to see what is happening among the goliaths in the line. Now the football is visible in the wide open spaces as skilled athletes display dazzling moves, whether the team favors the extremely popular spread offense or uses the more familiar run-oriented approach.
"It is more a one-on-one oriented game now," said coach Ben Mayer of Ontonagon, whose program has consolidated with neighboring Ewen-Trout Creek, which yearly battled small player turnouts just to keep the game alive. Fifteen E-TC students are playing football at Ontonagon, with six on the varsity, highlighted by 6-foot-7 receiver Jacob Witt, who caught MHSAA 8-player record 24 touchdown passes last season.
"Without 8-player, we would have gone under a while back," said Mayer, who played for U.P. Sports Hall of Fame coach Bob "Cubby" Carlson at Ontonagon. He said the Gladiators were forced to use four freshmen and had 130-pound athletes on the line in past years.
"Football has changed a lot in the last four years," he said of the time since the Gladiators moved to the 8-player game. "The ball is in the air. It is fun to watch.”
Mayer said 8-player also enables his program to offer junior varsity football to younger students, instead of having them compete against older, bigger and stronger players with the potential to increase injuries.
"There is not as much violence between the tight ends now because we don't play in those tight spaces," said Mayer.
He also recalls putting "wildly undersized kids in the line against bigger schools with monsters from legitimate programs, with kids getting stepped on and squashed on.
"You do have a lot of choices in 8-man. I can put smaller kids somewhere and they will be all right, and we can still play football."
Ostrenga said it seems injuries, especially of the serious variety, have also seemed to decrease. "We used to hit a lot more in practice. Now we do a lot of teaching and drill work and conditioning," he said, adding MHSAA officials have been in the forefront of trying to reduce injuries with new regulations.
Ostrenga said in the 11-player version, many times it came down to "men playing against boys."
He did say, however, that under the 8-player game coaches "can tend to overuse a player. You get a really good athlete and use him as a crutch in a game."
Ostrenga said it took time to support the change to 8-player football. "I was against 8-man football at first. Now it has made me more open-minded and allowed me to become more understanding." He said 8-player athletes need to have speed, strength, balance and shiftiness.
"Some big guys can't move that well," he said, indicating this version of football requires more agile and nimble athletes to cover the wide-open spaces. "The big thing is understanding you have to get your athletes on the field. You just have eight guys on the field and you are (more) exposed. In 11-man you can hide someone. In 8-man, coaches will find your weaknesses."
Rader agreed, noting, "It puts a lot of pressure on the defense because the game is so wide open. There is a little different strategy. It is a disadvantage for the defense because (the field) is so wide open and there is not a lot of help. You want to take the advantage your offense has over the defense in one-on-ones.
"We like to run the ball and throw the ball, so our athletes can utilize the open field.”
Barr said 8-player quarterbacks are more difficult to contain than typical pocket passers. "They are more elusive," he said, recalling how the 6-foot-4 Whitens could take the direct snap, survey the field and decide whether to throw or run the ball himself.
In the 2016 MHSAA title game, Whitens ran 17 times for a record 352 yards and six touchdowns as the Jets beat Deckerville 58-22. The Jets ran for 469 yards that night.
"You rarely see teams ground and pound," Barr said of the8-man game, noting he began to rely on the spread offense in 11-player football as he tried to figure out how to match up with the over-powering tailback-oriented rushing attack of perennial power Forest Park, which began playing 8-player football in 2016.
Barr said the kicking game is of vital importance now and that secondary tackling is a tough transition because of the explosive offense athletes.
He said "the hybrid player who has size and speed" is featured in 8-player "and it can eliminate the real big kids," which he said are seldom a factor for small schools anyway.
Another plus for the 8-player game comes in scheduling, where Class D schools no longer have to face larger Class C programs and can also find opponents in northern Wisconsin, which also has declining enrollments.
Bark River-Harris and Lake Linden-Hubbell are the only Class D schools still fielding 11-player football teams in the Upper Peninsula. Three other schools, Class D Wakefield-Marenisco and Bessemer and Class C Ironwood have formed a cooperative program, Gogebic Miners, for football purposes.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Crystal Falls Forest Park downed Powers North Central 66-58 in Week 2 as the teams combined to score more than 100 points for the third time in two seasons. (Middle) Ewen-Trout Creek’s Jacob Witt, here against Carney-Nadeau last season, caught 24 touchdown passes in 2016 and is playing as part of a co-op team with Ontonagon this fall. (Photos by Paul Gerard.)
Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
May 26, 2023
Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.
The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).
Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.
See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:
Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.
On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.
A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.
Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.
Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.
Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.
Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).
Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.
Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.
Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.
PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)