QUINCY -- The sport of 8-man football has enough participants to offer state championships in neighboring states of Missouri and Iowa, and it's slowly growing in Illinois.
A group of schools from Chicagoland have formed the 8-Man Football Association and is pursuing the opportunity to be sponsored by the Illinois High School Association and form its own state series. Seven schools -- Alden-Hebron, Westminster Christian in Elgin, Christian Life in Rockford, Judah Christian in Champaign, Lake Forest Academy, Milford-Cissna Park and Jacksonville ISD -- are playing 8-man football for the 2018 season, while Polo will join in 2019.
Alden-Hebron football coach and athletic director John Lalor is the president of the I8FA. He has talked with IHSA assistant executive director Sam Knox about 8-man football.
"It's something that's really new to us," Knox said. "Several states to the west of us have some version of 8-man football. We have some teams that played 8-man and more that plan to next year. I still think we're a ways away from having any kind of state finals or playoff system because the low number of teams."
Knox said there isn't a magic number the IHSA needs for it to create a playoff, but he knows sometime in the future, those talks will come.
"We realize it's coming. It's a growing trend," Knox said. "Just like in Missouri and Iowa, the schools that have 8-man had to start somewhere. They had their own games and eventually had a state playoff and a champion.
"We're just not there yet because it's new to us. You want to walk before you run. It's coming eventually. I just don't know that timeline on that."
The IHSA typically requires about 10 percent of schools play an "emerging sport" before it recognizes it as an official sport. With a little more than 800 member schools as part of the IHSA, the sports would need about 80 schools. However, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson recently told WRMJ Radio in Aledo that an exception could be made for eight-player football because it's really just a subset of an existing sport.
"To expect eight-man to get all the way to 80 (teams) isn't realistic," Anderson said. "That's why I think that number is going to be a lot lower for us introducing an eight-man state series."
When a school struggles to have enough players come out for a team and remain competitive while staying safe to play 11-man football, then 8-man football becomes a popular alternative. Pleasant Hill, for example, finished the end of last fall's campaign with 19 healthy players.
Wolves coach Mike Giles said the school board has discussed 8-man football, but for now, the preference is to play the 11-man game.
"If we can still put a team together, we will," Giles said. "It would really come down to the administration and what direction they want to go to. We still have our co-op with Western and have pretty good luck with it with numbers."
Giles said if the IHSA creates a state playoffs for 8-man football, that would make going that route more attractive. However, that doesn't mean Pleasant Hill would go that route. Giles affirmed the Wolves are satisfied playing 11-man football.
If the IHSA adds 8-man football, it could also create opportunities for smaller schools that don't have the numbers to field an 11-man team. Southeastern, Liberty and Griggsville-Perry don't offer football, while Payson Seymour co-ops with Unity and Western co-ops with Pleasant Hill.
Southeastern used to co-op with Central but hasn't since 2012.
"Any time you can provide an opportunity for your students to play a sport, and it's offered, I think the school board would at least look into it," Southeastern athletic director Cyle Rigg said. "I'm not saying we would, but it's something we'd at least consider and talk about and see where it goes from there."
The biggest barrier, at least for schools in West Central Illinois, seems to be cost.
If Pleasant Hill chose to play 8-man, it would leave the comfort of the Western Illinois Valley Conference South Division where the longest drive for a league road game is 45-mile drive to Greenfield-Northwestern.
The closest 8-man football team in Illinois to Pleasant Hill is Jacksonville ISD, which is 53 miles away. The next closest school is a 171-mile trip to Judah Christian in Champaign, though that likely would change as more schools add the sport.
Southeastern would virtually be in the same situation if it chose to play 8-man. The school also would need to spend money to buy football equipment and build a football stadium, which would make joining 8-man a tough sell.
"No question the money would be a huge factor," Rigg said. "Startup costs would be a big hit, especially all at once. If you had existing equipment and facilities, that would be one thing. But when you talk complete startup, you're talking a huge financial decision for a school district."
Lalor told the Northwest Herald that once a few more schools commit to 8-on-8, it will have a domino effect on small schools across the state. He predicts that as many as 20 or 25 schools will be playing 8-man football by 2020.
North Shelby High School in Shelbyville, Mo., recently started 8-man football. Most of the 24 teams in Missouri are in the western part of the state.