By SAMANTHA PIDDE
West Carroll High School will not field a varsity football team for the 2021-22 school year.
During the Wednesday, July 21, meeting, West Carroll School Board meeting, Athletic Director Mike Burton and WCHS Principal Joe Hansen presented their reasoning behind their recommendation to only have a junior varsity football squad this fall. Among several reasons, one that Burton stressed numerous times was safety.
Burton and Hansen said there is a lack of participation in the upperclassmen, noting that of the 21 football players in the 2021 season held in the spring due to the Covid pandemic, nine of them were outgoing seniors.
After three meetings held by football coach William “Teo” Clark, the number of students who signed up for the 2021 fall football season were zero seniors, one junior, 11 sophomores and between 11 to 16 freshmen.
Coach Clark also has been holding weight training this summer and Burton reported that no upperclassmen have participated.
Burton spoke briefly regarding the possible reasons for the decline in interest, saying there is not really "one root cause." He noted there seems to be a lack of overall involvement of sports by males in the junior and senior classes.
Decreased enrollment, transportation and other interests were given as other reasons. Burton also said Covid-19 and the effect it had on recent seasons also could be a factor.
"Just like anything, when you stop doing something, it’s hard to get back," he said.
The athletic director said that if West Carroll continued with a varsity football team this season, the lack of upperclassmen and disparity in size and strength due to freshmen playing against seniors could be an issue. He said this could lead to a decreased level of self-confidence in players and there also would be fewer opportunities for players to develop their skills.
One of the key concerns remained the issue of safety, with several board members agreeing that having freshmen facing teams with older players was not ideal.
Board member Nicole Thulen noted that her son will be a freshman this year and she would not want to see him playing on a varsity team.
Board member Jeff Woodside agreed they should not have 14-year-olds playing on a varsity football team, saying, "You can't have boys playing with men.”
Under Burton's proposal, WCHS would have a junior varsity team, but no varsity squad for the upcoming season. Board President Fred Tipton asked if the lack of a varsity team would hurt West Carroll’s ability to attract families to the district.
"We'd still have a football program,” said Burton, “we just wouldn't have a varsity team this year.”
Board members questioned if not having a varsity team would affect West Carroll’s standing with the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference (NUIC), to which Burton responded no. Burton said he anticipated West Carroll may return to having varsity football as soon as next year, adding that the other conference schools know this.
Woodside asked how West Carroll could field a varsity football squad in 2022 if there are few or no seniors and juniors playing this year. Burton said that with the coaching skills of Clark, he anticipated some of this year's sophomores and freshmen could potentially play varsity next year. Thulen said that while she would not want her son playing varsity this year, she would probably be fine with it next year as a sophomore.
The board unanimously approved Burton's recommendation to only have a junior varsity football team this fall.
In looking to the future, Burton also spoke about the possibility of West Carroll eventually moving from 11-man football to eight-man football. This format is specifically designed for smaller schools with enrollment below 325 students and WCHS will be below 300 this year, he said.
With this format, teams have two less linemen, one less skill player and five players on the line of scrimmage, instead of seven. The field is still 100 yards long, but is only 40 yards wide instead of 53 yards. The rest of the rules remain the same.
Burton reported that many NUIC teams are considering or already have switched to eight-man football. As of this season, NUIC schools using this format include Freeport Aquin Ashton-Franklin Center (AFC), Amboy, Milledgeville, Orangeville, Polo and River Ridge.
"I think more and more schools are going to do it," said Burton.
Switching to this format would mean not playing with the conference and instead joining the Illinois 8 Man Football Association. The entry fee is $250, with a $150 annual fee after the first year. Joining requires a two-year commitment and the deadline for the 2022 fall season is Jan. 1, 2022.
West Carroll board members were hesitant to approve 8-man football at this time, expressing concerns on how hard it would be to rejoin the NUIC conference if the school's enrollment or interest in football increased. Burton and Hansen said that would not be an issue.
Tipton said he wants to have 11-man football, which Burton agreed is what they would prefer, but might not be practical in the future. Thulen noted there seems to be more interest in football in the current 7th and 8th grade students.
"I'd much rather have 11-man football, but whatever's best for the kids and safer for the kids," Thulen said.
With the deadline not until Jan. 1, 2022, the board agreed it would rather see how many students remain interested in football for next year. The matter will be revisited later this fall.