ASTABULA, Ohio – Faced with a shrinking roster, St. John School in northeast Ohio has made the decision to play 8-man football for the 2019 season.

That move brings scheduling challenges and the need to design a new practice routine.

St. John School is a private, Catholic school with a K-12 enrollment of just over 400 students in 2016.

Heralds coach Scott Knisely said the roster was at 12 players – with the hope of reaching 15 – when the decision was made Wednesday to play the 8-man game.

He said shifting to the smaller version of the game is better than dropping football altogether – despite the headaches the move brings.

"At the end of the day, that was our goal," Knisely told the Star Beacon of Ashtabula. "We want to play football games – whether it's 8-man, 10-man, 11-man, 6-man. The kids want to play for their school and for each other."

St. John School President Sister Maureen Burke said the move might not be permanent. St. John officials will re-evaluate the program annually.

"As a school and community, our first concern is our students and their safety," Burke said. "We were projected to have around 17-20 players. We had some injuries, some decided to pursue other interests and others moved. We want football, that's part of the fabric of high school sports."

Finding opponents

Statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations show a decline in participation in traditional 11-man football in Ohio over the past decade.

Ohio saw the number of scholastic football participants rise from 43,980 in the 2002-03 school year to 52,098 five years later with a high of 55,392 in 2008-09. But the numbers have declined every year since – falling to 45,882 by 2012-13 and 42,637 in 2017-18.

Knisely said around 10 players showed up consistently during St. John's summer drills.

"They worked hard and never complained," he said. "They deserved the right to play as a team."

Eight-man football is sanctioned in 30 states, but Ohio is not one of them. That means St. John will need to travel to find opponents.

Once the decision was made to play 8-man football, athletic director Nick Iarocci started contacting opponents from the schedule, offering them the opportunity to continue to play St. John.

Two opponents agreed to remain on the schedule as 8-man games, but the two games won't count for those schools in their playoff rankings.

Iarocci said the rest of the schedule is still being finalized, although a game at Holgate, which is playing as an 8-man school in northwest Ohio, is confirmed for Week 2.

'A high-scoring game' 

The main differences with 8-man football is the width of the field decreases from 55 to 40 yards and five players have to be on the line of scrimmage – as opposed to seven in the 11-man game.

"It's a high-scoring game," Knisely said. "The defensive side is harder. For us, offensively it is not going to change. We throw the ball anyway with the spread.

"The challenge will be on defense and how are we are going to view offenses. Are they going to run power or go to the spread? I was talking to a coach who said the best scout team is the dry-erase board. There's a lot of adjusting on the fly. We're preaching formation recognition."

Knisely said his practices before the decision was made had been geared toward playing 11-man football.

The Heralds were a 2018 Division VII, Region 25 playoff team, but will be ineligible to play in the postseason this year.

Burke said overall enrollment at St. John is up.

"We have around 180 students from grades 7-12 and about 70 percent are involved in sports," Burke said.

Even though St. John isn't playing for a spot in the postseason or may not even suit up each week, school officials still want the experience to be positive for the players and community.

"We have to find other ways to create excitement," Burke said.

Knisely reiterated that the objective is to work and play hard and maintain leadership qualities throughout the season – whatever each week brings.

"They want to put on that Heralds jersey," he said. "Football is football. Nothing changes in what we're trying to accomplish."

Mike Greco is the sports editor of the Star Beacon in Ashtabula, Ohio, a CNHI LLC newspaper.