Mount View High School's offense lines up against Orono's defense during an 8-player football controlled scrimmage Monday in Thorndike. Credit: Ernie Clark / BDN

The scoreboard was shut off, the chain crew was missing and special teams were something for another day.

But as the 8-player football teams from Dexter and Orono visited Mount View High School of Thorndike for a controlled three-way scrimmage Monday, the players didn’t care.

For the first time in 21 months, they were just happy to be blocking and tackling anyone besides their teammates.

“It was amazing, the best feeling in the world,” Orono High School rising senior Joey Robertson, a running back and defensive back, said. “I think [8-player football] suits our personnel way better. If we were playing 11-man I’m not sure we’d have seen as much success as we did today.”

Dexter, Mount View and Orono will be three of 16 new teams in the state’s rapidly expanding 8-player football ranks this fall, a continuing concession to steadily declining high school enrollments around the state and fewer football players. The teams previously fielded the traditional 11-player version of the sport, though last season was limited to 7-on-7 touch or flag football due to COVID-19.

In 8-player football, the offenses play with two fewer linemen and one less running back or receiver, and the defenses also field three fewer players.

Dexter coach Andrew Shorey watches the action during a three-team controlled scrimmage with Orono and Mount View at Thorndike on Monday. Credit: Ernie Clark / BDN

“There will be different plays and different formations, but everything else will be the same,” Dexter head football coach Andrew Shorey said. “You’ve still got to block and tackle, punt and kick, catch and run. It’s all football so for the most part it’s the same.”

Mount View coach Rick Leary expects one major emphasis of 8-player football will be on open-field tackling because of the six fewer players on the field.

“It’s more wide open, and since there are only three offensive linemen when you get a hat on a hat there’s some room,” he said. “We didn’t do a good job of that at the beginning today, our linebackers were sitting in their stances. But we grew, we got better as we went.”

While there could be more open space, the 8-player field is narrower than the 11-player version. Eleven-player football is contested on a 53⅓-yard wide field, while the 8-player edition is set on a field 40 yards in width.

“We had a lot of difficulty in practice with the field being a little skinnier, especially on passes. We’re used to playing it wider,” Dexter senior linebacker and fullback Nathan Schobel said. “Once we get used to it we’ll be fine. It’s still the same thing, just three less people.”

There were concerns last week that Mount View might not be able to field enough players for the controlled scrimmage, but while the Mustangs suited up just 13 players Monday they put forth a physical effort and Leary added that the player count is improving.

“I really loved the experience of the kids getting together the way they did today,” he said. “We started out the season with very, very low numbers, and then the kids stepped up and stepped up and stepped up and now we’re up to 18 playing the game and learning how to love it.”

Dexter and Mount View are among six teams now in the 8-player North small-school division that competed in Class D North 11-player football in 2019 along with Houlton, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Stearns-Schenck and Washington Academy of East Machias.

Orono, another former Class D North school, rounds out the 8-player North division after forgoing its 2019 season due to low player numbers and a lack of linemen.

That leaves just Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft and Bucksport among the 2019 Class D North field still competing in Class D, which this fall will be a one-division statewide class.

Orono High School football coach Bob Sinclair (right) talks to the Red Riots’ offense during Monday’s three-way controlled scrimmage with Orono and Mount View at Thorndike. Credit: Ernie Clark / BDN

“I do think you’re going to see some more schools moving into [8-player football] and you might see some schools moving back up [to 11-player] as well as programs grow,” Shorey said. “That’s the great thing about it, it gives schools some options going forward. It’s something different to help small schools.”

Ten schools competed in the inaugural season of 8-player football in 2019, with Ellsworth the only team north of Augusta.

This year’s 26 8-player teams — compared with 51 11-player football schools — include 11 large schools with enrollments of at least 355 students that are divided into a five-team North and a six-team South.

The 15 small-school 8-player programs have enrollments of 354 or less, with seven in the North and eight in the South.

Just one 8-player state champion was crowned in 2019 but separate large-school and small-school 8-player champions will be crowned this year on Nov. 13 at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.

“It’s not a bad option at all, you’re still playing football. I think you’re going to see more and more people jump into the 8-man game for a variety of reasons,” Orono coach Bob Sinclair said.

“People need to get their head around the fact that this is football, it’s still blocking and tackling, and you saw that today where kids were banging away on each other and then picking each other up.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...