Liberty Bell High School is considering a return to 8-man varsity football, after another losing season in class 2B 11-man competition.

This time, the Mountain Lions may be able to join a league and participate in post-season play, Liberty Bell Activities Director Michael Wilbur said this week.

Wilbur, head football coach Bob Bucsko and assistant coach Jeff Lidey met with parents, current Liberty Bell players and past players on Nov. 15 to talk about the possibility of returning to 8-man play. Wilbur said the emerging consensus was to explore the 8-man option for next year. “We had a good conversation about the experience we had the last time we played 8-man,” he said.

The Mountain Lions played one season of 8-man football, in 2015, when they racked up an 8-1 record, averaged 53 points per game and scored 70 or more points on several occasions. At the time, however, it was difficult to find nearby opponents, and because Liberty Bell wasn’t in a league it could not qualify for post-season play.

The Mountain Lions returned to 11-man play in 2016, when they had a season record of 2-6. They were 3-6 in 2017.

Liberty Bell finished the 2018 season with a 1-8 record (0-6 in league play), during which they were outscored by an average of 30 points per game. Injuries sometimes left the team with a thin bench.

Wilbur said that Bucsko had approached him with concerns about injuries and the Mountain Lions’ depleted roster, and suggested considering the 8-man option.

In an Oct. 27 memo to Wilbur, Bucsko said that “it has become quite apparent that the Liberty Bell football program is in danger of losing players due to the level of competition they must face … I believe some degree of success is the only way you may save this program from extinction.”

“My biggest concern is the safety of the players,” Bucsko said in the memo. “This year we ranged between 15 to 18 eligible players facing other teams with 30 to 40 players.”

Rebuilding effort

Wilbur said that one concern raised at the Nov. 15 meeting was that Liberty Bell “would be locked into 8-man forever.”

However, Wilbur and Bucsko both said that 8-man play would give the Liberty Bell program time to rebuild in anticipation of eventual return to 11-man football. Wilbur said that a stronger youth football program, and a commitment to training and conditioning in Liberty Bell’s new fitness center, would be key to rebuilding the varsity program.

In a memo sent to parents and students, Wilbur said that “Some who attended the [Nov. 15] meeting felt that the 8-man, as a game that rewards speed and quickness over size and power, better suits the athletic population of our school.” 

Wilbur is soliciting community input about the proposed change. Comments can be emailed to mwilbur@methow.org or mailed to the high school, he said. Wilbur asked that comments be received by Dec. 7.

Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable would have to sign off on moving to 8-man ball, and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association would also have to approve the change.

Wilbur said that several other schools in the region are also contemplating a switch to 8-man next year, and it may be possible to form a new league. They include Pateros, Entiat, Waterville, Soap Lake, Bridgeport and Yakama Tribal.

Previous experience

The previous switch to 8-man play was largely prompted by the players. After a difficult 2014 season that included a couple of forfeits and ended with a roster depleted by injuries, Liberty Bell players approached the district and asked about the possibility of playing 8-man football. Venable endorsed the change to 8-man competition on a one-year experimental basis.

After the 2015 season, then-activities director Chase Rost recommended that Liberty Bell return to 11-man ball because of the probable difficulty in putting together a schedule for 8-man play; and because of a realignment of the league that Liberty Bell played in before.

Bucsko, who has guided the team for the past two seasons, said this week that returning to 8-man ball would be “an opportunity to build the program … with the objective of being able to return to 11-man after a couple of seasons.”

Bucsko said he is hopeful that 8-man football would encourage more players to turn out. And, he said, it’s an exciting brand of football.

“Don’t underestimate 8-man football. It is very fast-paced on the same size field as 11-man,” Bucsko said. “In my 48 years as a coach I have seen a lot of 8-man players recruited to play football in college”

“It’s all about the kids,” Bucsko added. “For this program to continue to exist, there has to be a rejuvenation of enthusiasm among the boys in the school.  I am hoping that 8-man will be the start of that.”