Press Box: Growth of 8-man football affects all schools in MSHSAA

The sun sets over Faurot Field as Blair Oaks warms up for the second half of last season's Class 2 state championship game against Lamar. (News Tribune file photo)

We’re about to embark on another high school athletics season.

Fall practice begins Monday. The first contests will be played in three Fridays -- or Aug. 25, if you’re not near a calendar. And on that same Friday, the Missouri State High School Activities Association will announce the class and district assignments for all fall sports, except cross country.

There are some people who are primed and ready to go that Friday morning, eager to check the MSHSAA website and see their school’s assignments. Will their team be in a favorable district? Will it be in a difficult one?

When it comes to football these past few years, I’ve always had a few questions going into that Friday.

Will Jefferson City be assigned to Class 4 or Class 5? Will Blair Oaks be in Class 2 or Class 3? They both seem to straddle the cut-off line for those classes recently.

Those answers have felt like a 50/50 toss-up lately. But thanks to a recent change by MSHSAA, those questions have likely already been answered for us.

Jefferson City will be in Class 5 and Blair Oaks will be in Class 3, and I can say that with 99.9 percent certainty.

MSHSAA will be reducing the number of Class 1 football teams starting this fall, potentially cutting the number of districts in that class in half from eight to four. In 2022, Class 1 fielded 60 teams. This year, that number could drop to as few as 40 teams, or perhaps even 32 teams.

As a result, those extra 20-28 schools that were at the top of Class 1 based on enrollment will be bumped up to Class 2, creating a ripple effect all the way up to Class 6.

The reason for this change is because of the rising number of Class 1 schools that have dropped from 11-man football to 8-man football, or have dropped football all together from their athletic programs.

It could be because a school is struggling to field enough players for an 11-man football team. It could be because a school has struggled for several years at 11-man football, and perhaps a change to 8-man football might lead to more success.

Whatever the reason, MSHSAA did what it had to do to keep schools from leaving 11-man football. The alternative is dropping back from six classes to five.

Orrick won back-to-back Class 1 state championships in 2007 and 2008. A decade later, the Bearcats transitioned to 8-man football.

North Shelby had winless 11-man football seasons from 2010-14, amassing a 63-game losing streak. The Raiders dropped to 8-man football shortly thereafter and reached the state semifinals in 2021.

Westran was a Class 1 football powerhouse in the early 2010s, finishing as a state runner-up in 2010 and 2014. This fall, the Hornets are projected to be one of the 10 smallest schools in 11-man football, based on enrollment.

Times change and success fluctuates in cycles. While I have nothing against 8-man football, if MSHSAA didn’t step in and intervene by shrinking the number of schools in Class 1, more 11-man teams would bolt and 8-man would have a full field of 64 teams within 10 years.

However, I’m encouraged when I see Mid-Missouri schools like Harrisburg, Russellville and Linn taking up 11-man football.

It took some time, but by Year 6 at the varsity level, Harrisburg produced a winning season. By Year 3 at the varsity level, Russellville started its season with a seven-game winning streak.

MSHSAA’s decision to downsize the number of teams in Class 1 will upset many teams, especially the ones that have to bump up a class this season as a result.

From the looks of it, East Buchanan, which won last year’s Class 1 state title, will likely move up to Class 2 this fall. Blair Oaks (Class 2), Cardinal Ritter (Class 3) and St. Mary’s: St. Louis (Class 4) are also projected to move up a class, and maybe even Class 5 state champion Francis Howell. None of them may have the chance to defend their title at the same class level in 2023.

But until more smaller schools add 11-man football, this had to be done to preserve Class 1 football.

So who’s ready for some football?