8-man big deal in small towns

Tuesday, November 25, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:54 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

ST. JOSEPH — Mitchell Scarbrough was tired. The rest of his team was celebrating after winning a state championship, and Scarbrough was joining it, but he was a step behind the rest of the team.

A mixture of sweat and rain was causing his eye black to run down his face, bruises on his arms were starting to show and he was walking with a slight limp. He wasn’t complaining. When you’re the team’s starting quarterback, safety, punter and leading rusher, you have an excuse to be tired.

“I was just going on pure adrenaline the whole game,” said Scarbrough, a senior. “When you grow up in a small town, this is your Super Bowl.”

Scarbrough was talking about the MSHSAA 8-man football championship, which took place amid a cold rain at Missouri Western College’s Spratt Stadium on Saturday. Scarbrough’s team, Mound City (enrollment: 83), won its second title 64-16 by defeating North Andrew (enrollment: 103).

Eight-man football is played by about 25 high schools in northwestern Missouri, all which are too small to be competitive at the Class 1 level. So 8-man ball was invented, either in Iowa or Kansas, depending on whom you ask, but has spread quickly in smaller towns in the Midwest and MSHSAA has held state championships since 1988.

“We could try to field a Class 1 team and just get completely hammered every game,” Mound City coach Terry Petersen said. “But we could play 8-man, become competitive, and the town has something to rally around.”

The game takes a little getting used to. First off, the field is smaller and is 80 yards by 45 yards. The game is high-scoring (both teams entered the game averaging more than 45 points) because it follows the rule of backyard football: burn one defender and you’re good to score.

Case in point: Scarbrough was 12-for-19 for 269 yards and seven touchdowns. He also rushed 21 times for 92 yards and a touchdown.

“I watch bigger schools play football, and it’s just not as much fun,” he said. “Sometimes it seems it takes them forever to score anything. Plus, 11-man is too conservative. If you’re past the 40-yard line (the midpoint in 8-man), there’s no such thing as punting on fourth down.”

There’s also no such thing as secondary wide receivers. On offense, a team will usually field three linemen, a tight end, a quarterback, a tailback, a fullback and a wide receiver. The defense will usually field three or four down linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and, in long-yardage situations, a safety.

If you’re a fan of watching special teams, skip this game. Mound City’s kicker, Chris Russell, has a leg and can kick for touchbacks despite his straight-on kicking style. Instead, the Panthers kick an onsides kick every kickoff, despite the lead or deficit, despite the amount of time left.

“A game hinges on where one team gets field position,” Petersen said. “Chris can kick it deep. That’s not the issue. But no matter what the lead, we want the best field position and control of the ball. A lead in 8-man can evaporate in a snap.”

North Andrew’s special teams are equally quirky. A glance at its season stats shows a blank spot where extra points and field-goal statistics should be. Cardinals coach Bob Heddinger (who is also the athletic director and principal of the school) doesn’t believe in kicking.

“If we make a two-point conversion half of the time, that’s just as good as kicking,” he said. “This season, we made them more than half the time, which meant more points for us.”

There’s more to watching the game than the game. Candidates for political office were mingling with the crowd and shaking hands because they know everyone is there. Each team also had a heckling section composed of players from rival high schools who traveled to boo one team.

Each team also mustered up about 20 students to play in the band, which is impressive considering that consists of about one-quarter or one-fifth of each schools’ enrollment.

Mound City, though, with a smaller enrollment, needed help to complete its band, so during halftime, Jason Rogers, a tight end/linebacker, and Jeffery Blazer, a running back/defensive back, filled in as the bass drummer and cymbals player.

By the time halftime commenced, the Panthers were holding a 40-8 lead. Kyle Chaney, one of the spectators, called the game “the biggest game Scott Fontaine’s columns appear Tuesdays. Mound City’s seen since 1999,” when Mound City edged North Andrew in a shootout to win its first 8-man championship.

Officially, 2,123 people braved the cold rain to watch the game. Although that number is only a slice of Rosendale’s population of 14,632, Petersen said he believed almost all of Mound City’s 1,193 residents drove to St. Joseph to watch the game.

“If you want to go rob a store in Mound City, today’s the day,” he said. “Because everyone’s here, just like all season. We’re from a small town, and this is the biggest thing we got.”

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