Carsonville-Port Sanilac has been all in since the beginning of 8-player football as an MHSAA sport three seasons ago.
Rapid River made the switch just this season.
But heading into tonight's first-ever MHSAA Final for the sport, both programs can claim similar rewards from embracing this adjusted version of the state's most popular high school sport.
Despite small enrollments, they can still play the game. And although they've struggled at times in recent years, both teams are winning -- and reaping all of the community support and good vibes that come with success.
Both 11-1, Carsonville-Port Sanilac and Rapid River kick off for the championship at 7 p.m. at Northern Michigan's Superior Dome.
"We can't be happier to have the opportunity to play (8-player) this year. The added success has really brought our team together, and I hope it ends on a good note," Rapid River coach Steve Ostrenga said. "It's great for the kids and great for the community. You always talk about hard work. But when we were 1-8 ... the kids who have been through those tough times, I think they appreciate it more."
Both teams can value that statement.
Rapid River won one game each of the last two seasons and hadn't reached the playoffs since 2002. The school has roughly 120 students now -- 40-50 fewer than when it was having its last run of success near the end of the 1990s.
Carsonville-Port Sanilac went 0-9 before leading the charge into 8-player football in 2009. Although the Tigers had made the playoffs as recently as 2005, winning seasons for the team had been few and far between. But Carsonville-Port Sanilac went undefeated a year ago and beat Bellaire in an unofficial state "championship" game that matched the Tigers -- winners of the Mid-Michigan 8-man Football League -- against the winners of the Bridge-Alliance 8-man Conference.
"It's changed the whole culture of the school," said C-PS coach Tim Brabant, who is in his second season running the program and graduated from the school in 2006. "At first, a lot of people didn't buy into it. But as we went undefeated last year, and with what we've done this year, we've gotten complete community support and a buy-in across the board."
Recently, that's included 240 people showing up at last week's pancake breakfast to raise money for this weekend's trip to Marquette. Tigers supports also filled two fan buses headed to NMU.
Both coaches also listed a similar adjustment teams that play 8-player football must make: Strong open-field tackling is a must.
Although the field is only 40 yards wide -- instead of the usual 53 -- having six fewer players on the field opens up the offense significantly. Rapid River has scored more than 60 points four times and Carsonville-Port Sanilac put up 70 and 91 in games this fall. Both average 51 points per contest. Ostrenga grew up in Menominee -- known for its single wing offense that doesn't use a quarterback -- but has embraced a spread passing attack that allows for opportunities all over the field.
Both teams suffered their only losses when their quarterbacks were injured briefly in September. Depth always is an issue when numbers are low.
That said, success in this version of the game has planted some roots for the future. C-PS had 50 players out for elementary teams this fall and hopes to have enough down the road for a full junior varsity. Rapid River thinks the move to 8-player will help it sustain the program despite enrollment losses of the last few years.
And the historical context of tonight's game is not lost on either team.
"They understand that. We were the first team in the state of Michigan to have a full 8-man roster," Brabant said. "A lot of people thought we were crazy. These kids understand what's at stake."
(Photo courtesy of Carsonville-Port Sanilac football program)