Auburndale’s Transition to 8 Man Football an Unexpected Move

Auburndale (OnFocus) – With the Marawood Conference announcing their plans last week to go ahead with a fall football season, everything appeared to be set for the 8 Marawood teams to have a 7 game conference season in 2020. Nearing the September 1 deadline to declare if their schools were playing fall sports in the fall or in the spring, the schools in the Marawood announced they were all-in for football this fall.

Turns out those plans took an abrupt turn, however, late last week.

Auburndale announced their decision to play 8-man football for the 2020 season, a decision that was not easy to make, Auburndale Football Coach and Athletic Jay Anderson explained.

“This was dictated by recent factors. I have had some people around me that were more able to recognize or admit that this was a step that needed to be taken. I either didn’t recognize it as much or didn’t want to,” Anderson explained.

Numbers were a big factor in the decision, as was a squad made up mostly of underclassmen.

“We have had a decrease in participation at our school in all sports but for football to go to 8-man was something that came about because of a number of factors. The main reason is still to allow our Freshmen and Sophomores to play at the level that they can have successes,” Anderson said. “If we would have remained in 11-man football this Fall, we would be able to play one level. Just playing a Varsity schedule would not have allowed the majority of our younger kids to play any meaningful minutes. We would have lost some of those kids if they didn’t play. Also, we would have lost some of those kids if they were forced to play a Varsity schedule before they were physically or mentally ready.”

Abbotsford Head Coach Jake Knapmiller was surprised by the announcement.

” I wasn’t aware of this being a possibility, but apparently it was an issue in their board meetings. It would have been nice to have a heads up on it,” Knapmiller shared.

Colby Head Coach Jim Hagen was also surprised by the move.

“It certainly came as a surprise to me. I know that Coach Anderson talked last spring about the potential for low numbers and maybe not being able to play JV games, but moving to 8-man did come as a surprise,” Hagen said. “However, with all that is going on, they need to do what is best for their program and I respect that and hope their numbers improve in the future.”

Anderson explained the decision to move to 8-man was a move just for this season, and with difficulty getting numbers for this season, made the most sense for his program.

“I am hoping that the move to 8-man this year is our best option to get back to 11-man as soon as possible. Another factor was that I simply don’t know what our numbers are going to be this year. We had 19 kids show up for our last contact day. The most we had during our contact days was 20 kids. The majority of those kids were Freshman and Sophomores. Each year I have to recruit players throughout the Spring and get kids active during the Summer through the weight room and open gyms with basketball and wrestling. Obviously I didn’t have that opportunity this off-season,” Anderson explained.

The decision was not an easy one, for certain. Athens Head Coach and Athletic Director Craig Diedrich knew it was something that Auburndale put considerable thought into.

“I am sure Coach Anderson, his staff and the Auburndale administration had many discussions about Auburndale switching to 8 man football,” Diedrich said.

COVID-19 played a big role in causing the need to move to 8 man football, Anderson added.

“We looked at going to the Alternate Spring season but when that didn’t occur, we had to consider 8-man football and that is what we did. I don’t believe that we would have had to change to 8-man if we weren’t shut down for the last six months because of COVID,” Anderson said.

Without a conference for this season, Auburndale now faces the tough task of finding opponents. With little time to act on crafting a schedule, it’s not going to be easy.

“A conference is considering accepting us into their schedule. It may be just a portion of the schools willing to play us but I am hoping that it would be a start of a schedule and I could therefore fill in with schools that are in our situation. I have had four schools contact us that would be willing to play and it would ultimately come down to making the weeks fit. This is the biggest worry for me at this point. I have to find some games for these kids,” explained Anderson.

For the remaining members of the Marawood, finding an opponent for the open date began immediately.

“The challenge is finding a team that has an opening also that Friday night. In Colby, we will not be picky as to who we play and we are willing to travel a great distance just to fill the opening. We just want players to have an opportunity to play this season and sometimes it is ok to travel so student/athletes see a different part of the state,” Hagen explained.

“Our AD(Colby and Abbotsford shared athletic director Jerry Hughes) is on it. The challenges are opposing teams size/travel etc. I believe we are going to play OMRO who is a solid Division 4 team with some great talent. It will be a very tough first game for us,” Knapmiller said.

“Athens lost a scrimmage opponent and an opponent for 11/6/20. We are advertising on the WIAA website and asking anyone that can help us find opponents to play,” Diedrich said.

The decision by Auburndale to move to 8-man was only for this year, but plans for beyond this season are not certain. Although it’s a temporary move, things aren’t certain for next season.

“I am looking at the move this year to be as temporary as possible. Even with just 3 Seniors next year, we have a good Sophomore class. We have good numbers there and I am going to expect all of the kids to prepare themselves accordingly. However, I can’t guarantee we will be 11-man next year. It’s too difficult for me to predict,” Anderson explained. “Our last enrollment was down as low as I have ever seen. It isn’t getting any easier. My biggest concerns are creating a satisfactory schedule for this year’s seniors and that I don’t know of a school going to 8-man that has ever made the switch back to 11-man.”

Despite the uncertainty about how this season will play out, the mood is positive for area teams.

“Our athletes and coaches are very excited to get things going. We are approaching everything with the mentality of ‘Some is better than none’,” Diedrich explained.

“Overall, once we start practice it will be business as usual with the exceptions of the mandates by Governor Evers and recommendations from the WIAA. Colby anticipates having at least 50 players out for high school football and I know in talking to many of the players, they are excited to get started. I just hope that we can get most of our games in and we hope the pandemic stays away from schools once students start coming back to school. Time will tell I guess,” Hagen shared.

“Our numbers look good. The challenge will be keeping kids healthy in general and safe with the virus. Our kids have done a very nice job individually of doing what they can to prepare to be the best they can, whenever we are able to play,” Knapmiller explained.

When Anderson first mentioned the possibility of a move to 8 man football, his players were surprised.

“The first time that I brought this up to any of our kids was during an open workout. At that workout, which was open to everyone, we had one Junior and two Senior football players present. That was the first time that I knew that I had to mention the possibility. So I told those three that a move to 8-man will have to be considered. I could see they were disappointed about the thought of not having 11-man but at the same time they were able to recognize the concerns. They knew that it had to be an option when they are at a workout and it’s just those three. After that, I was able to get the word to those that would show up and it was surprising to them but they quickly realized that we didn’t have much choice,” Anderson said.

Parents have been supportive, Anderson added.

“The parents that I have had contact with are supportive. They have said themselves that if we had more involvement in the Junior and Senior classes this wouldn’t have happened and they all realize the safety implications of football. It is also easy to understand when we have just two returning football players in the Junior class with a third planning on joining after a year off. Our extremely low numbers in that class puts more pressure on the classes around it.”

This will be an adjustment for Auburndale fans, and Anderson explained this was an extremely decision to make.

“As for the community, there will be the pride factor and I’m sure some will be upset without knowing the facts or even caring to know the facts. And to tell you the truth, I am upset. I guarantee that I am more upset about this than anyone. I’m always trying to find a solution but it’s difficult not knowing what is the root cause. I was able to pick the numbers up from the years before I coached but it was just temporary. Last year’s Senior class had 15 players but at least 7 weren’t out for football here the year before I was coaching. It has been a struggle to get the numbers up and most people understand that,” Anderson explained.

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David Keech
Author: David Keech

David Keech is a math teacher in Wisconsin Rapids and public address announcer for Abbotsord High School. He officiates basketball, baseball, and softball in central Wisconsin. He has reported on amateur sports since 2011, known as 'KeechDaVoice.' David can be reached at [email protected]