Roster size still a concern for Mountain Lions on gridiron
By Don Nelson
Liberty Bell High School’s one-year experiment with eight-man football is over. The Mountain Lions will go back to playing 11-man football in the 2016 season.
Methow Valley School District activities director Chase Rost recommended to Superintendent Tom Venable that Liberty Bell return to 11-man ball and resume playing its traditional regional opponents in the 2B division. Venable accepted the recommendation and the decision was made early this week, Rost said.
Rost said that his recommendation, which included consultation with head football coach Steve White, came down to two major factors: The probable difficulty in putting together a schedule for eight-man play next season; and the realignment of the league that Liberty Bell played in before and will now return to.
“We’re being somewhat forced in this direction, but it’s not a bad time for it to happen,” Rost said.
The decision followed a sometimes-emotional community meeting last Friday (Feb. 5) in the high school library, where parents, fans, coaches and many Mountain Lion players from last year’s team gathered to discuss whether to return to 11-man competition.
After a difficult 2014 season that included a couple of forfeits and ended with a roster depleted by injuries, Mountain Lions players approached the district and asked about the possibility of playing eight-man football. Some players said they would not continue to turn out for 11-man ball because they were concerned about injuries and competitiveness — and about enjoying the experience.
Venable endorsed the change to eight-man competition on a one-year experimental basis. Liberty Bell managed to cobble together a 2015 schedule that included two games with a couple of schools, and finished with an 8-1 record. Because the Mountain Lions were not officially in any league, they could not participate in post-season play.
Liberty Bell used its exceptional speed to overwhelm most of its opponents, scoring 70 or more points on several occasions.
At last Friday’s meeting, Rost noted that practical considerations might support a switch back to 11-man competition. For one thing, he said, Okanogan — a much larger school — will move up to a higher classification next and Liberty Bell would not face them.
The bigger issue, Rost said, is that it would likely be extremely difficult to put together an eight-man schedule for 2016 because of some re-alignments in in the 1B classification.
“We were really lucky to get games this [past] year,” Rost said. “It looks like it would be a lot more difficult next year. Games would be difficult to come by, and travel distances would be even longer.”
The Mountain Lions had to take several long bus trips last year for road games.
Liberty Bell’s 2015 success could also work against it. “I wouldn’t want to play this team if I was an opposing coach,” Rost said.
Looking at potential league realignments, Rost said, “it’s not necessarily a bad year to re-enter 11-man.”
Waterville, a team Liberty Bell beat last year in eight-man football, will be moving up to 11-man competition next season and would be a likely Mountain Lion opponent, Rost said.
The most important question, Rost said, is whether Liberty Bell will be able to generate a large enough roster to keep an 11-man team on the field for a full season.
Sentiment from the audience at Friday’s meeting clearly favored a return to 11-man competition. Several audience members asked how they could support the team by fundraising for equipment and other needs.
Coach White said that “football is football” and injuries will be a part of the game no matter what, but it is the coaching staff’s responsibility to teach players how to play as safely as possible.
“The biggest concern I have is safety,” White said. “We have strong, fast, intelligent kids. We don’t have kids that can play smash-mouth football.”
Derek Alumbaugh, who had an outstanding season as the Mountain Lions’ quarterback last year, said “numbers will be our biggest problem” if Liberty Bell returns to 11-man football. “We may lose some players,” he said.
Alumbaugh said he likes eight-man ball and “it fits our style of play.”
Another player from last year, Zane Herrera, said that “I will play no matter what … but I know kids who won’t play. We need enough kids to prepare [for games], and you can’t always do that with fewer numbers.”
“Either way we’re going to be gaining and losing players,” Herrera said.
White said it would be difficult to field an 11-man team with a 14-player roster, but looking ahead to the potential number of returning player and younger players moving up to the varsity, it will be possible to have an adequate roster.
Enrique Whites, a freshman running back, said he’s worried that the Mountain Lions won’t have enough good equipment for safe play. Coach White said that new helmets are on order.
White said that the team will travel to Eastern Oregon University this summer for a four-day football camp that will help them develop their skills.
White said this week that “we’re all very excited about the return to 11-player football. With any change in a football program there will be things to figure out. With the support of the community and athletes, the change should go fairly smoothly.”