It was only 2 years ago that Polo had a undefeated regular-season and a state-ranked football team that advanced to the Class 1A quarterfinals. It was the 21st time Polo had qualified for the IHSA playoffs.
However, in the world of small-school football, participation numbers can change drastically from one year to the next. It is because of this that Polo has decided to begin playing 8-man football in 2019.
“We considered either a co-op or 8-man,” Marco coach Jeff Bumsted said. “I can’t count how many hours I spent surveying our kids, calling other coaches that have 8-man and researching everything on I could on it.”
Between Principal Andy Faivre, Athletic Director Ted Alston and Bumsted, no stone was left uncovered in making a recommendation to the school board to drop 11-man footall in favor of 8-man. They started talking about it a year ago, but got serious midway through this season as Polo struggled to field a varsity squad.
“A lot of schools have been talking about 8-man, but without anyone else in conference making the commitment, it’s a bit scary,” Faivre said. “Somebody has to take the leap of faith. Maybe now, someone else will say, ‘Polo did it, so why not us.’”
Indeed, the Marcos give instant credibility to a fledging 8-man association of teams in Illinois. Currently, Alden-Hebron, Rockford Christian Life, Elgin Westminster Christian and Lake Forest Academy from the northeast part of the state, along with Milford and Champaign Judah Christian from east central Illinois, are signed on to play for 2018.
With such a strong heritage of football at Polo, it was a difficult decision for school administrators to make.
“The whole idea behind it was to be competitive,” Bumsted said. “We can’t do that with freshmen playing on varsity. It’s also discouraging for a 14-year old that has never played to have their brains beaten in by a senior from Stockton that has been lifting weights for 4 years.”
Another problem for Polo is not having a middle-school program, and having freshmen and sophomores further hampered by not playing full schedules.
“Our sophomores have only played 10 fresh-soph games total the last 2 years because of either lack of numbers by us or other schools,” Bumsted said. “Besides not getting experience, they’re losing out by not getting nine games a year. As a coach, I want to keep the program thriving and fun for the kids.”
Without adequate numbers at the varsity level, the fresh-soph often had their practice interrupted to be brought to run the scout team.
“It’s not a great environment. We want to keep the two levels separate, but can’t with 11-man,” Bumsted. “I don’t want kids to leave our program saying, ‘I played 1 year and got the crap kicked out of me.’”
Another consideration for Polo was maintaining its independence rather than co-op with a neighboring school district.
“When it came to the voice of the boys in Polo football, they wanted it to remain Marco football,” Bumsted said. “Going to 8-man is an option for schools that are in a co-op to split up. Maybe there will be a movement afoot to reverse the trend to co-op.”
Coming from Iowa, Bumsted has seen the growth of 8-man football.
“Of all the [six] classes in Iowa, it used to have the smallest number of schools,” he said. “Now, it has the most with 65.”
Bumsted also has experience coaching it in Missouri as far back as 1989.
“I think it’s a great game,” Bumsted said. “There are so many things you can do on offense. Defensive coordinators will pull their hair out trying to come up with schemes.”
The rules are the same as 11-man, with minor variations. Bumsted and Faivre know there might be some reluctance within the community to making the change.
“It’s still Friday Night Lights, and the crowds are still the same,” Faivre said. “It’s the same tackling, blocking and hitting. It’s not backyard football. Of the schools that have begun playing it, there is not a one that regrets it. It revitalized Christian Life’s program from nine to 19 players.”
Though the IHSA does not recognize 8-man football, there may come a time when it is included in the playoffs.
“Based on their by-laws, you need about 50 teams for that,” Faivre said. “Maybe the IHSA could do some different things to make it happen sooner.”
Still, the 8-man association (I8FA.org) is making plans for its own state playoff.
“Compared to finishing 5-4 and getting killed in the first round of 11-man football playoffs, or having the chance to compete for an 8-man title, I like the idea of being in an 8-man playoff,” Bumsted said.
Polo even considered making the jump to 8-man for 2018, but opted to honor its NUIC varsity 11-man schedule. Projected numbers are 12-15 on varsity and 18 fresh-soph.
In preparation for next year, Alston is looking to schedule all fresh-soph games as 8-man.
“After that, we’re looking to go full bore,” Bumsted said. “I think there could be possibilities of other [NUIC] Upstate teams joining us.”