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Friday, March 23, 2018: New York high school football has a 'small' problem

   Leading off today: Is the latest initiative aimed at preserving small-school football in New York actually cannibalizing small-school football in New York as we know it?

   It's a fair question to ponder a little more than five months ahead of the opening kickoff to the 2018 season.

   Eight-man football, which made a modest return to Central New York a season ago, is now expanding exponentially -- and it's gutting its 11-man big brother in Class D. Further, there are indications that it could soon have more than just a marginal impact on Class C.

   It falls under the heading of the law of unintended consequences: Offering eight-man football was seen as a way to keep the sport alive at schools struggling to field traditional teams, but now the number of small-school teams playing the 11-man version of the sport is plunging. Class D as we know it faces both short- and long-term issues across New York. Class C may not be far behind in that respect.

   The short-term issue:

   Steve Grandin of the New York State Sportswriters Association counts just nine schools eligible for the eastern half of the 2018 NYSPHSAA Class D tournament bracket -- Haldane and Tuckahoe in Section 1; Whitehall, Warrensburg/Bolton, Fort Edward/Argyle, Rensselaer and Hoosic Valley in Section 2; and Ticonderoga and Moriah in Section 7. Sections 9 and 10 will have no Class D teams this fall.

   There were 16 eligible teams -- a small number but still marginally workable -- a season ago. The rapid decline is the result of three major factors:

    • Revised classification cutoffs approved by the NYSPHSAA have pushed a few teams up into Class C.

    • Defending state Class D champion Cambridge is joining forces with Salem under the slightly older combined-schools rule envisioned to keep participation numbers up, creating another Class C team.

    • Eight-man football is replacing 11-man teams. Eldred, the last Class D program in Section 9 now that Millbrook is moving up a notch, has opted to make the conversion to eight-man, and they're being joined by Dover, Fallsburg, Livingston Manor/Roscoe, Pawling, Pine Plains, Sullivan West and Tri-Valley, which leaves just four Class C 11-man programs.

   What it amounts to is that the relatively plentiful Class D playoff teams in Sections 3, 4 and 5 will continue to face five win-or-go-home games to reach the Carrier Dome on Thanksgiving weekend for the right to play for a state championship. The finalist from the eastern half of the state could get to Syracuse with as little as a single sectional victory, a bye in the state quarterfinals and a win in the semifinals.

   The issue isn't confined to one end of the state. Section 6 appears to be down to just Cattaraugus-Little Valley, Salamanca, Sherman/Panama/Clymer and Maple Grove in Class D for now.

   (Class C isn't quite at the some critical point, but we will probably have fewer than a combined 30 schools in the eastern half of the state in that class this fall, with up to two-thirds of them located in Section 2.)

    That calls the fairness of the Class D tournament into question and brings into focus the longer-term issues -- namely how should the NYSPHSAA deal with what is transpiring:

    • First-round pairings have more or less been etched in stone since the state tournament began, but the time seems right to shift Section 3 or 4 Class D teams into the eastern side of the bracket to restore some semblance of balance since last season's ratio of 56 western teams to 16 eastern times is about to get even worse.


   Even then it might be necessary to take a page from the boys Division II hockey tournament and add a wildcard team from one of the larger sections to fill out the eight-team quarterfinal bracket.

    • Re-doing the classification cutoffs could help, but it's not as simple as it sounds since moving 15 or 20 schools down to Class D to help restore some balance affects the ratio of enrollment sizes between the largest and smallest schools in each class and tends to affect some sections more than others when it comes to the number of teams that get moved. It's a concern whenever cutoff numbers are changed.

    • The people in charge of the sport should be asking what is being done to get eight-man teams back into the business of 11-man football.

   There's nothing wrong with playing eight-man football. But when even Class C schools start converting to eight-man, it's reasonable to suggest the problem is partici- pation numbers and not just shrinking enrollments.

   Teens have more options for activities in and out of school than ever before, and concerns about football head injuries are at an all-time high. There are still a lot of prospective participants out there, but is eight-man football going to bring them into the fold and help the sport regenerate growth?

   Asked another way, is eight-man being imple- mented as a stop-gap for schools looking to rebuild their traditional teams or is New York conceding that it's the future of the sport in a state where the small towns keep getting smaller?

   With Grandin's help and some poking around of my own, here's where New York stands when it comes to eight-man football:

    • Sections 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 11 (the latter two do not participate in the NYSPHSAA state tournament) are not in the mix at this point. It seems inevitable that a few Section 2 schools will be giving it serious thought within a year or two.

    • Section 3 had five teams (Cooperstown, Bishop Grimes, New York Mills, Oriskany and South Lewis) a year ago. They'll be joined in 2018 by Altmar-Parish-Williamstown and Pulaski. In a related note, Section 3 has reinstituted its developmental league for struggling 11-man programs, lining up Syracuse Fowler, Oswego, Phoenix and South Jefferson.

    • Section 4 is set to go from one eight-man team a year ago to four (Lansing, Newfield, Oxford and Unadilla Valley) this time around.

    • Section 5 has several schools in the exploratory phase, with as many as five schools seen as candidates to try eight-man for the first time. A meeting of football chairmen in Syracuse next week could help them determine if potential scheduling options make the decision to drop down from 11-man more or less likely.

   Schools looking instead to combine with other 11-man programs have until May 1 to get their paperwork squared away with the section.

    • Section 9 has eight teams set to debut in eight-man football, making for easy scheduling without having to travel outside the section. But Class D is gutted for now and half of last season's eight Class C's are also gone.

    • In Section 10, Tupper Lake is going it alone and will probably have to look to Sections 3 and 4 for scheduling help.

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