Over the past month, an oft-discussed issue has been the Pawling Central School District’s decision to change the High School Football program from an 11-man team to an 8-man squad for the 2018 season. The decision was reached at the conclusion of last season, with district officials taking into account enrollment statistics and safety concerns for players. Recently, the move has been met with protest from members of the community including PHS alumni and former players.
Beginning next fall, Pawling will be participating in the NYS Section 1 8-Man Football League. The league will consist of teams from Pawling, Dover, Pine Plains/Rhinebeck, Tri-Valley, Roscoe/Livingston Manor/Downsville, Sullivan West, Fallsburg, and Eldred. An 8-Man program allows smaller schools to retain their identity and still provide a tackle football experience.
Eight-Man programs have existed for decades across the country and have seen recent growth, despite a general decline in 11-Man football participation nationwide.
With the formation of this new league, Pawling will also have the opportunity to continue competing against local rivals such as Dover and Pine Plains/Rhinebeck. Ultimately, the 8-Man squad will compete for a League Championship at the conclusion of the season, with the possibility of an additional Bowl Game and a NYS Regional Championship against a squad from the Syracuse area, where another 8-Man league began last year. In early February, several other Section 1 schools in Westchester County also requested information about pursuing 8-Man football to possibly revitalize their programs for the upcoming season. Furthermore, the move to 8-Man football also gives Pawling the potential to build a Junior Varsity program as well as a 7th and 8th grade modified program in the future.
At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Pawling played the final game with only 16 players, the minimum number allowed by state regulations. Of those players, six were seniors slated to graduate in the spring. Twelve freshmen will constitute more than half of the squad, joining the 10th and 11th grade athletes but making for an overall younger team. This statistic represents a problem that the district has encountered with supporting an 11-Man roster in the past several years. With such a relatively small number of players available, the prospect for injuries means that Pawling could easily be in jeopardy of forfeiting games because of a lack of available players. Fielding an 11-Man team with minimal numbers also means that athletes will receive extended playing time with few substitutions, putting each at increased risk for injury.
The lowered enrollment in the football program can be attributed to several factors according to district officials. Concussion protocols and the potential for injuries to the head and neck have resulted in some parents and athletes being more reluctant to participate in high school football. Furthermore, officials have noted more specialization among student athletes, meaning that players tend to focus on training and competing in only one sport as opposed to playing two and three sports each year.
The decision to change to the 8-Man program has not been universally well received throughout Pawling. Since the announcement was made, concerned parents, coaches, and PHS alumni have been in attendance at Pawling Central School District Board of Education meetings. In addition, a sign campaign has sprung up, with bright orange signs reading “Save Our 11-Man Tigers Football” posted throughout the area. Among the concerns voiced by this movement are the breaking from the 11-Man football tradition that has existed in Pawling for many years coupled with the fact that an 8-Man program would be unable to contend for the State Championship in the future.