The Bucksport Golden Bucks take the field in their first ever game as an 8-man football program on Sept. 3. The team lost 28-14 to Stearns High School. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTOS BY ZACH LANNING

Bucks adjust to 8-man format as local teams play season openers

MILLINOCKET — The frustration was evident as the final whistle blew and the Bucksport football team made its way back to the bus.

The Bucks had just dropped the opening game of their season, a 28-14 road loss to Stearns High School. The team got better as the game went along but players were unable to overcome the two score lead they surrendered in the first quarter.

“We didn’t quit, and we played hard,” said longtime head coach Joel Sankey. “That’s a good football team we played. We’ll just have to go back and look at the film, correct what we did wrong and improve and learn from this. It’s not the end of the world.”

One might expect there to be a learning curve for a team playing in its first ever regular season game after reclassifying as an 8-man program. Stearns, which seemed to possess just a slight edge in most areas on the night, has an extra season of 8-man football under their belt, making the switch in 2021. Coach Sankey did acknowledge that, at least on the coaching side, some adjustment was necessary heading into the season for Bucksport.

“It’s different. Much quicker,” Sankey said of the speed of the game which has three fewer players on either side of the ball. “So, we’re still learning that, too, as coaches having never coached 8-man football before.”

While it may be a bit of an adjustment for historically successful 11-man programs like Bucksport, the switch to 8-man has become a necessity for the survival of football in any form in the area.

“8-man football saved football at MDI,” said the head football coach at Mount Desert Island High School, Mark Shields. “The last couple of years we just didn’t have enough kids to field an 11-man team safely.”

Another historically successful coach in the 11-man game, Shields left the program briefly before returning a few years later as an assistant coach during the team’s first year as an 8-man program. He has now taken back over his role as head coach and is looking forward to a successful season after the Trojans upset Spruce Mountain in their opening game of the season with a thrilling two-point victory.

“I definitely think 8-man is the way of the future,” said Shields. “I remember watching my son play 8-man at the middle school level and thinking, this looks a lot like football. It’s a pretty exciting game to watch for the fans because it’s so wide open … If you asked me four years ago, I would have been apprehensive, but the more I’ve learned about it, it’s still football. There’s kids in pads out there. There’s still fans in the seats. There’s still cheerleaders. It’s still football.”

Bucksport’s Athletic Director Aaron Ward, who helped make the difficult decision to reclassify and has worked to oversee the transition, agrees with coach Shields.

“At the end of the day, it’s still football,” said Ward. “There’s three less players, but at the end of the day, the kids get to go out and have fun and hit somebody.”

For Ward, the decrease in numbers, and the risk to the athletes that a smaller bench of players presented, made the switch necessary.

“We’d have loved to stay at 11-man football, but making the switch was the answer,” Ward explained.

He also referenced some of the benefits of switching to the 8-man game, which include shorter travel times for games—most, if not all, the other schools in the area had already reclassified as 8-man schools—and the opportunity for the school to play a full JV schedule.

“The amount of games now are hopefully going to attract even more kids to the sport,” said Ward.

While there may have been some initial pushback to making the switch, Ward says that he welcomed the discussion and feels that, ultimately, people understood the move.

“I think everyone realized it was in the best interest of all of our kids to make the switch,” said Ward. “The community is passionate about football and so any decision will be looked at, but that just means that the community is invested. We always want to make sure we are getting the community invested and get them out to support all of our athletes. At the end of the day that’s never going to change.”

In terms of the impact that playing 8-man as opposed to 11-man might have on an athlete’s chances at getting recruited by colleges, most coaches believe there won’t be any lost opportunities.

“It’s all of the same skills, the way we teach the kids positions and all that,” said Shields. “You still have linebackers, defensive linemen, offensive linemen, et cetera. If [college coaches] see a kid who is dominant at the 8-man level, they would still recruit that kid. Half of the schools are 8-man already so if Maine schools want to recruit in the area, they’ll have to recruit 8-man.”

So, while coaches may have to adjust certain parts of their strategy, and ADs like Ward may have to figure out how to condense their field by four yards on either side, the recipe for success remains the same.

“Whoever tackles, whoever blocks, whoever follows their scheme, wins,” said Ellsworth’s coach Dave Svec, whose team lost its opening game to the defending North champion Waterville Panthers 50-14. “Unfortunately, we’re not doing that yet.”

Zachary Lanning

Zachary Lanning

News reporter Zach Lanning covers news and features in the Ellsworth area. He comes to Ellsworth by way of New Jersey, which he hopes you don't hold against him. Email him at [email protected].

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