Danny Stash realized his dream of playing under the Friday night lights quicker than he ever expected.
He made the Gray-New Gloucester varsity his freshman year, a year after the Patriots made the first playoff appearance in the program’s history.
But when it became apparent that he and many of his teammates weren’t ready for the varsity level, he started dreading Friday nights.
“I started varsity on defense for homecoming. And that wasn’t the best time of my life, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Graduations, injuries and inexperience produced an 0-8 season in which the Patriots were outscored, 340-18. It sapped much of Stash’s excitement and optimism for his and the program’s future. He was so discouraged he didn’t play football for the next two years.
With Gray-New Gloucester among the 10 schools participating in the new eight-man football classification this fall, and with head coach Brian Jahna and his staff now in their second year of building the program, Stash has returned to play his senior year with a renewed sense of optimism.
“We’ll have eight seniors on the offense this year, instead of having some freshmen playing varsity their first year,” said Stash, who will be the starting quarterback. “I was a victim of that my freshman year.”
In hopes of helping struggling programs such as Gray-New Gloucester and players such as Stash, the Maine Principals’ Association made eight-man football an option for the first time this fall. Ten schools signed up for the inaugural season.
MPA officials believe the move came just in time.
“For some of these schools, if that wasn’t a viable option, they may not have a football program,” MPA executive director Mike Burnham said.
Burnham and some school officials think more schools would have joined eight-man immediately but worried about the stigma that it isn’t “real football” causing community backlash.
“I do believe that very quickly these schools are going to show that it is real football, that it’s enjoyable to watch and that it gives opportunities for kids and schools to continue to play football,” Burnham said.
Old Orchard Beach coach and athletic director Dean Plante, one of the state’s leading eight-man advocates, said his school wasn’t in danger of losing football. But staying competitive on the gridiron became increasingly difficult for a school with a little more than 100 boys to play all of its fall sports (football, soccer, cross country and golf). Being a small southern Maine school surrounded by big schools also made other options such as forming a co-op program unlikely.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” he said. “Once we saw the benefits of eight-man football and the teams that would be on our schedule, which would be pretty traditional for us, we were all in.”
The eight-man small school (0-350 enrollment) division Old Orchard Beach is playing in includes traditional rivals such as Traip Academy and Boothbay. The Seagulls’ eight-game varsity schedule also includes two large-school (over 350) division teams, such as Gray-New Gloucester and Mt. Ararat.
Enrollments for the schools playing eight-man this year range from Boothbay’s 192 to Camden Hills’ 709. The latter’s enrollment would place it in Class B if it played 11-man football.
Schools that play eight-man will be able to return to 11-man football if they wish, Burnham said.
“I think that’s a great goal for any program to have, and certainly I can understand with some of the larger schools, as they’re building their program, who would like to be able to compete against schools of the same size in 11-man,” Burnham said.
“But I think this is a wonderful opportunity for smaller schools to maintain a program with enrollments declining,” Burnham said. “For some of the small schools, this may be more of a long-term option.”
Burnham said a number of schools that remained in 11-man “are watching very closely because, with their roster sizes, this may be an option for them. Some (current eight-man) programs may eventually move back into 11-man, but I think that there are some other programs that may benefit to come into the eight-man division.”
The eight-man football ranks have grown dramatically in states where the sport has recently been introduced or re-introduced.
In 2017, New York reintroduced eight-man football after a 40-year absence and saw the number of teams more than quadruple, from seven to 29, in one year. This despite the fact that there were no playoffs and teams and visiting teams sometimes had to travel more than two hours for a game.
Illinois started with six teams in 2017 and has seen the number increase to 11 last year and to 15 this fall. In Michigan, teams with eight-man schools more than tripled from 20 to 62 between 2011 and 2017.
A similar explosion could occur in Maine. While the MPA is starting a new two-year enrollment cycle this fall, Burnham said more schools may be able to transition from 11-man to eight-man football next year.
“I think if there are requests made, particularly around player safety, that we would look at that,” Burnham said. “We don’t ever want to put a school or a team into a situation where it’s unsafe for them to play football.”