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story.lead_photo.caption Westside Eagle Observer/MIKE ECKELS Hermits quarterback Dillon Quimby (6) out runs several Bulldogs defenders for a 45 yard touchdown during the Aug. 31 Decatur-Hermitage eight-man football contest at Bulldog Stadium in Decatur. Hermitage claimed victory in the contest 38-32 over Decatur.

DECATUR -- Decatur football coach James Ortiz walked past the twin water towers that hover over both the high school and football field Friday night.

Less than 30 minutes remained before Arkansas' first eight-man football game in more than 50 years, but Ortiz's focus wasn't on the rapidly approaching game. Rather, he and an opposing Hermitage player were taking time to carry an equipment table across the field -- walking over a green paint-covered 5 that had mistakingly identified the 45-yard line as the 50 in the process.

Such is the life of many a small-school football coach across Arkansas, where "other duties as assigned" is more a lifestyle than standard wording in a teaching contract.

"I stay up here until 7 or 8 o'clock at night sometimes," Ortiz said. "I'm not mad; it's just part of it."

Ortiz knew what he was getting into when he moved from one part of Benton County to another during the summer, leaving Pea Ridge after 11 years to join the 119-student high school as a math teacher and coach.

He was hoping to be a part of something new and help keep the lights on at Bulldog Stadium.

The decision to part ways with 11-man football was part experiment and part desperation for a school more accustomed to Friday night forfeits than victories in recent years. Decatur is one of six schools across the state that made the move to the eight-man version of the game this season, doing so on a club level before being expecting to be sanctioned by the Arkansas Activities Association in 2020.

Hermitage, Augusta, Episcopal Collegiate, Woodlawn and the Arkansas School for the Deaf are also a part of Decatur's nine-game schedule this season.

They are schools from across the state that might not share much in common geographically, as evidenced by Hermitage leaving at 9 a.m. Friday for the 7 p.m. kickoff, but they've all been hampered by low participation numbers and injuries while trying to stay relevant in the game's traditional form.

Decatur forfeited two games last year because of low participation numbers, and then-principal Toby Conrad made the decision to call off another at halftime because of mounting injuries.

After taking over as the district's athletic director during the summer, Conrad began promoting the eight-man game -- anything to generate a renewed interest and local identity. He expects the number of teams playing eight-man football to grow to 10-12 teams next year and as many as 20 in two years.

It's hardly the 78 schools that play the version of the game in Oklahoma, but it's a start.

"We've been losing so bad for so long," Conrad said. "I think it's going to change the culture around here and get people coming to games. We're going to get more kids playing, so we're going to have more parents in the stands."

The game itself isn't all that different to watch. Rather than requiring seven players on the line of scrimmage, the eight-man version only needs five, leading to anything from three- to five-man offensive lines on Friday night.

Also, the field is narrower, and it's expected that Arkansas schools will shorten the field from the current 100 yards to 80 when the sport is sanctioned in two years.

In addition to asking for help with strategy from coaching friends this summer, Ortiz took time to look up just about any and every eight-man football video he could find on YouTube, looking for any tip he could find.

"I just wanted to watch a game," Ortiz said. "So, I just sat there and watched."

Like Decatur, Hermitage was unable to finish its season a year ago and forfeited its last six games before making the move to eight-man football this year. On Friday night, the Hermits dressed out only nine players -- fewer than the 12-member Decatur band.

"We've got some kids who love football and still want to play," third-year Hermitage coach Chase Ellis said. "What's awesome is they wouldn't get to play on Friday night, they wouldn't get this experience, and we want our kids at Hermitage and other small schools to get the same experiences as bigger schools."

In addition to a desire to rekindle a sense of pride and ownership at Decatur, Ortiz entered this season with three goals for the Bulldogs. He wanted more people involved -- students, parents and the overall community -- and he wanted to create a new sense of enthusiasm.

Oh, and one more thing.

He wants them to win, something the school has done only twice in the last three seasons.

Decatur nearly did just that in its first eight-man football game Friday night, dropping a heartbreaking 38-32 decision against the Hermits. In the loss, senior quarterback Cayden Bingham accounted for four touchdowns, leading Conrad to tell him as he walked off the field, "You gave this town as much excitement tonight as it's had in years."

"It feels great, to be honest, even though we lost," Bingham said. "It means a lot to us to be able to play something more catered to us."

Sports on 09/02/2018

Print Headline: PREP FOOTBALL: Eight Is Enough

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