High school football: Alden-Hebron coach Lalor says 1st season of 8-man football was "huge success"

There’s no doubt in Alden-Hebron football coach John Lalor’s mind, the 2017 season was “a huge success.”

That’s not something often heard from a coach whose team finished the season 3-6. But considering it was the Giants’ inaugural year playing 8-on-8 football, rather than the traditional 11-on-11 game, simply fielding a team at all made it worthwhile.

“We ended up having a full schedule and the kids got to play nine games, and it basically saved our program,” Lalor said.

The Giants played a full season, despite having only 14 players on the roster.

A-H was one of five schools across the state playing eight-player football in 2017. The others were Lake Forest Academy, Westminster Christian, Rockford Christian Life and Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville.

Now, once again, Lalor will continue his work as the chief campaign man for 8-on-8 football in Illinois. The game essentially is the same as traditional football, except with fewer players and a narrower field.

The IHSA does not sanction the sport – it is listed among the state’s “emerging sports” – but 17 states across the nation do. Lalor has not had additional discussions with the IHSA since he went to the football committee’s meeting in December 2016 to pitch the eight-player game. Right now, the plan is to continue to increase the number of schools playing 8-on-8 football and go back to the IHSA when more schools are participating.

As it stands now, only five schools are committed to play eight-player football next season – the same five that did this year.

“I’ve been contacted from Week 7 up until this point by 14 different schools,” Lalor said. “[They’re] asking questions and wanting to know how it’s working, how we felt about it. We had less injuries, we were able to play a full nine games without having to worry about forfeiting games. I can’t find many negatives about it at all.”

Lalor believes that once a few more schools commit to 8-on-8, it will have a domino effect on small schools across the state. He predicts that as many as 20 or 25 schools will be playing eight-player football by 2020.

Geography plays a part in that decision making. Four of the five schools, excluding Illinois School for the Deaf, are in the northern part of the state.

The Giants played three road games in Wisconsin, including a two-hour trip to Elkhart. Lalor said next year they will play at Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, some four hours south.

“I know travel costs some money,” Lalor said. “You have to look for what’s best for your kids, as far as competitiveness, the opportunities you’re giving them as a school and administration, it sometimes is going to take traveling a little bit until we get this thing going to where there’s more schools in the area. But we also have to support one another.”

Champaign-area coach Nate Albaugh has been vocal in his support of eight-player football. Albaugh, who was an assistant coach at Johnsburg from 2005 to 2008, most recently was the head coach at Champaign Central. Last week, it was announced that he will be tasked with starting a football program at Judah Christian in Champaign, a school with an enrollment of 129.

Albaugh believes a playoff, even one not recognized by the IHSA, is the key for eight-player football to succeed.

“It would help a ton,” Albaugh said. “In Illinois, we love our playoffs. Right now, a lot of schools are looking at each other wondering what’s going to happen. As soon as John sits down [with the IHSA] with a plan and a playoff, I think it could change the landscape.”

Albaugh said it’s too soon to know if the new program at Judah Christian will play 11-player or eight-player. The initial goal is to try to field enough players for 11-on-11.

Lalor thinks if upward of 20 or 25 schools start playing eight-player football, they could devise their own playoff system, even if the IHSA doesn’t recognize it yet.

Typically, the IHSA requires about 10 percent of schools play an “emerging sport” before it recognizes it as an official sport. With just over 800 member schools, that equals about 80 schools.

However, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson recently told WRMJ’s Jim Taylor that there could be an exception for eight-player football because it’s really just a subset of an existing sport.

“We have 547 football-playing schools,” Anderson told WRMJ last week. “When you divide that up into eight classes, it’s a little over 70 per class. To expect eight-man to get all the way to 80 isn’t realistic. That’s why I think that number is going to be a lot lower for us introducing an eight-man state series.”

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