BATTLE CREEK — Five years ago, the future of football at Battle Creek St. Philip looked rather bleak.
The Fighting Tigers had won just three games over the previous two years, and numbers continued to dwindle.
“Our last year of 11-man, I think we had 18 boys out for football,” said Dave Downey, who has coached at St. Phil for more than 20 years. “We were not competitive playing 11-man.
“The kids just weren’t coming out because it wasn’t fun. We were getting beat all the time.”
The school decided to go to 8-player football, and the program has thrived.
Last season, the school’s fourth playing 8-player, St. Phil finished 12-1, losing only 58-33 in the MHSAA 8-player Final to Powers North Central.
“After we went to 8-man (five years ago), we had 28 on the roster,” Downey said. “The program really grew because we went to 8-man. It actually saved the program.”
The transition was not without a few fumbles.
“We didn’t know what we were in for,” Downey said. “That first year we struggled a little bit. We ended the season 7-4, but we learned a lot.
“It was an eye-opener for us. We didn’t know what to expect.”
Although the length of the field for 8-player is still 100 yards, the width is five yards fewer on each side.
That first season, Downey said he had confidence his 8-player team could play on an 11-man regulation field – but soon found out why the field is not as wide.
“Our first year, we didn’t move the markers in and we couldn’t cover the field, especially anyone with speed who would get on the outside and go,” he said.
“Our first game, we lost bad because we thought we could play on a big field, which we couldn’t.”
This year’s nine seniors have played 8-player all four years, but it gets even better than that for St. Phil.
“They’ve actually played 10 playoff games already (over four years), so they’ve already played (the equivalent of) four seasons,” Downey said.
“This is almost like their fifth season. Experience-wise, this group of seniors is really valuable.”
Success and motivation
Last Thursday, St. Phil scrimmaged Lawrence and then Big Rapids Crossroads to get game experience before opening the season this Friday at Kingston.
“We didn’t keep score, but it went well,” Downey said. “It was good experience for some of the younger kids, especially the freshmen, to play and learn.”
He said the veterans, especially the co-captains, are like having extra coaches on the field.
“They know exactly what our schemes are and our blocking patterns and they really help us out,” he said. “Our line is coming back. We’re solid up front.
“We have Noah Ellinger, our captain; Grant Hallacy who started last year as our other guard; Andy Forche at center and all of them played a lot last year on the line.”
Senior co-captain Grayson Obey has played football since fourth grade and said going from the traditional 11-player in Rocket youth football and middle school football to 8-player was no big deal.
“I think going from middle school to high school, not 11-man to 8-man, was harder,” he said.
Obey said last year’s success is a great motivator.
“We got a taste of a really good team last year, so it’s good motivation to work hard and try to push to get that again this year,” he said.
Ellinger agrees that the transition to 8-player was not a big deal.
“It’s two less linemen and I’m a lineman, so it’s just kind of shortening it up a little bit,” he said.
Playing both ways on the field takes some getting used to at the beginning of the season, Ellinger said.
“The first couple games it’s pretty hard,” he said. “You’ve got to learn to manage your time. It’s kind of tiring, but you get used to it.”
Downey said the parents like 8-player because “it is a little bit safer.
“We don’t have as many big kids on the field as 11-man. When you have the big kids, the little kids are the ones who seem to be getting hurt all the time.”
St. Phil lost all-state quarterback Brendan Gausselin to graduation, but Downey is eyeing sophomore Ryan Reincke and freshman Connor Gausselin for the position while senior Drew Lantinga recovers from a basketball injury.
“Last year Drew played wide receiver and linebacker,” Downey said. “He was the leading tackler on the team last year at linebacker.”
Connor Gausselin is Brendan’s brother.
“My brother played football and was pretty good, so I want to follow in his legacy,” Connor Gausselin said. “He’s helped me a lot. In every sport I play, I like being in control like a leader, so quarterback is a leader on the field and I like that.
“I’m very excited. My brother said high school football is the best part of high school, being under the Friday night lights. It will be fun.”
8-player grows statewide
Enrollment numbers are key to 8-player football in Michigan.
Of St. Phil’s 140 students, 21 are on the football team.
While Michigan has 564 schools playing 11-player, the state had 40 playoff-eligible 8-player teams last season. Currently, 48 teams are eligible for the postseason heading into this fall's first games.
Only Class D schools are eligible for playoffs, and enrollment must be 206 or fewer this year.
Class C schools or those with larger enrollments (cutoff was 212 students for the 2015 season) may compete in 8-player but they are not eligible for postseason play.
This fall, four Class C schools are competing in 8-player: Kingston, which was Class D last year; Dryden, Rudyard and Grand Traverse Academy. The latter two fielded 11-player teams last season.
Burton Madison Academy was Class C last year but dropped to Class D this year and is now eligible for postseason play.
St. Phil plays in the Southern Michigan 8-Man League with Tekonsha, Burr Oak, Camden Frontier, Waldron and Litchfield.
Other seniors on the Tigers are Tim Minier, Mike Scriber, Ben Swagler, Alex Yacovoni and Jordan Snyder. The other juniors are Justice Steiner and Morgan Bohannon.
Other sophomores are Chris Kubasiak, JC Downey, Nolan Kersten and Brodie Landstra. Other freshmen are Marcel Williams, Charley Harrington and Gus Strenge.
Assistant coaches are Jack Brown, Marc Pessetti and Jeff Minier.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Battle Creek St. Philip’s Drew Lantinga hauls in a pass last season; he’s moving to quarterback this fall. (Middle top) Dave Downey, Noah Ellinger, Grayson Obey. (Middle below) Senior Tim Minier surges after taking a hand-off during practice earlier this month. (Below) Ben Swagler pushes ahead during the Tigers’ 2015 win over Portland St. Patrick. (Photos from 2015 courtesy of Battle Creek St. Philip; practice photo and head shots by Pam Shebest.)