CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois 8-Man Football Association on Monday confirmed St. Thomas More as its newest member, capping what Sabers coach Nathan Watson described as “a wild two weeks” leading up to the moment.
On Jan. 3, Watson told The News-Gazette that STM was not preparing for a shift from 11-man football to the 8-Man Association that, in November 2019, finished its second season.
But after discussions with both his father and former Sabers assistant coach Shane Halcomb, Watson came away realizing STM needed to seriously consider the 8-man route — even if it conflicted with his idea of traditional football.
“When you look at low numbers, safety is an issue,” Watson said. “At one point this season I had a kid who wanted a (substitution), and I had to tell him no. I said, ‘Look at the bench. There’s no one else. I need you to go.’
“That’s probably not what’s best for the kid, and I didn’t feel right saying it.”
The 2019 Sabers had 25 athletes on their roster and finished 1-8 in a 10-team Illini Prairie Conference that sent five teams to either the Class 3A or 4A playoffs. And despite Watson expecting a strong freshman class in 2020, he also said reaching 30 players next season “would be a miracle.”
So Watson moved quickly to persuade others currently in the STM program that this was the right choice for a squad that last made the playoffs in a 2016 run to the Class 2A quarterfinals.
“When I took over STM football, numbers were low,” said Watson, who succeeded Dan Hennessey prior to the 2017 season. “I don’t know when it dropped below 30. Even in the state quarterfinal, we were at 27.”
Watson brought up the 8-man option to his assistant coaches on Jan. 10, addressed players and parents on Jan. 12 and made a presentation to STM principal M Bridget Martin and STM athletic director Thomas Welte on Jan. 13.
The process accelerated rapidly, in part so remaining football teams in the Illini Prairie Conference could more easily reschedule games should STM make the move.
There wasn’t immediate unanimous love for the idea, according to Watson, but it didn’t take long for support to start pouring in.
“After we weighed the pros and cons,” Watson said, “... everyone just needed more time to absorb it.”
Watson said he also received 8-man endorsements from friends in college football, including University of Chicago coach Chris Wilkerson, Central Florida offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, Washington State defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni, Utah State offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder and Whittier College linebackers coach Izaiah Williams.
Their consensus: Athletes worried moving from 11-man to 8-man will affect their college prospects need not be.
“I knew it was going to be a hard sell,” Watson said. “I made a strong presentation.”
A big turning point for Watson and others at STM came with the December vote by IHSA member schools to dismantle the short-lived district scheduling system.
“Regional football absolutely had ... the strongest impact on this decision,” Watson said. “I was really disappointed people weren’t willing to try it.”
Watson was hopeful the district system would level the playing field for the relatively short-handed Sabers. Now, he feels his program will be just one of several turning to 8-man in the near future.
Sixteen schools participated in the Illinois 8-Man Association in 2019.
The organization’s website lists 23 teams already committed for 2020, with Blue Ridge joining in December 2019 and Milford/Cissna Park, Judah Christian and Schlarman already in the fold locally.
“I think there’s going to be more before Feb. 1,” Watson said. “I don’t know why people are surprised people are jumping ship (from 11-man).”
Watson feels his team is close to getting back to those heights experienced in 2016, with the 8-man move a significant piece in making that a reality.
“It’s safety,” Watson said. “It’s putting our kids in a position to win.”