Bearcats aim for new beginnings with 8-Man football

Bearcats aim for new beginnings with 8-Man football

MILFORD — When Clint Schwartz walked into his first meeting with his Milford/Cissna Park football players in early 2018, his mind was on his rising seniors.

Rumors around both schools had it that the co-op football program could be coming to an end. Numbers were dwindling, as they were in several programs around the state. Schwartz said he expected between just 10 and 14 non-freshmen players back for 2018.

As for the rising seniors, starters like quarterback Jared Schunke and running back/linebacker Kennedy Kunsch, they faced losing their team after pouring three years of hard work into it.

Which is exactly why they were at the forefront of his Schwartz' mind when he told everyone in that room that the Bearcats would live on — just in a new way.

Rather than shut down, Milford/Cissna Park chose instead to slim down and move to the Illinois 8-Man Football Association for the 2018 season along with first-year program Judah Christian.

The seven-team league also includes Alden-Hebron, Elgin Westminster Christian, Jacksonville's Illinois School for the Deaf, Lake Forest Academy and Rockford Christian Life, with Polo set to join in 2019.

"It was just a relief that they get to play football again," Schwartz said. "They worked really hard the past years just to (potentially) have something taken away from them. So, it's a relief in that sense especially."

Schwartz said not much changes switching to the eight-man version, at least from the players' perspective. Teams play with two less linemen, one less skill player and on a field that is just 40 yards wide opposed to the 53 1 / 3 yards of width in a typical prep field.

While a few other exceptions apply, Schwartz said his leaders caught on quick. He will depend on them to help iron out the details with the newcomers before the season starts on Aug. 24 at home against Westminster Christian.

Schunke fields that responsibility on offense, coming into his third year at starting quarterback after throwing for the sixth-most passing yards in the area (1,398) and 14 touchdowns in 2017. He added 351 yards and eight more touchdowns on the ground for the 2-7 Bearcats.

Kunsch, who Schwartz said "runs the show" on defense, returns as the team's leading tackler (111) and rusher (595 yards) despite going down with a season-ending injury in Week 6 last season.

Both seniors will be vital in guiding a crop of 10 new freshmen, which Schwartz deemed a "really good-sized class for us any year." Eventually, he would like to see the 8-man game grow enough throughout the state that freshmen can play freshmen.

"When you can start to have freshmen playing freshmen, you're going to get parent buy-in, too," Schwartz said.

For now, though, the Bearcats will happily settle for having a program.

"There's a new energy going around our program," Schwartz said. "There's a relief from the guys and a real, honest belief that hope is back. There's a chance."

2018 schedule

DATE OPPONENT TIME

Aug. 24 vs. Elgin Westminster Christian 7 p.m.

Sept. 1 at Lake Forest Academy 2 p.m.

Sept. 7 vs. Illinois School for the Deaf 7 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Judah Christian 7 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Elgin Westminster Christian 1 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Alden-Hebron 7 p.m.

Oct. 12 *vs. North Shelby, Mo. 7 p.m.

Oct. 26 vs. Judah Christian 7 p.m.

* — Home game played at Judah Christian

Sections (3):Prep Sports, Football, Sports