NEDERLAND — After struggling through another losing season in 2013, Nederland football coach Aaron Jones had a decision to make.
He could have allowed his team to remain at the Class 1A level in hopes of eventually becoming competitive. Or, as a number of programs throughout the state do each year, he could petition CHSAA to allow the school to move to a smaller classification.
Given Nederland’s recent stretch of defeats and the constant struggle to maintain a roster healthy enough to field a full squad, Jones chose the latter, and after the state’s governing board’s approval this season will mark Nederland’s return to 8-man football for the first time since the 2007 campaign.
“CHSAA allows this to happen so that teams can rebuild a little bit and hopefully get more kids out,” Jones said. “And I know I got kids out because we’re playing 8-man football and because they know they have an opportunity to win games.”
For a program that has fallen on hard times, the change should be refreshing. While Nederland’s enrollment did rank slightly behind that of most of the competition it faced at the 1A level, the number of kids it was able to field for the football team showed a much greater disparity. Jones referred to a couple of games last season in which he was able to dress just 14 or 15 players, forcing most to attempt to play on both sides of the ball for the entirety of the contests, while other teams were able to send in fresh bodies at their discretion.
This was clearly proven to be an unsustainable practice, as fatigue often set in early for the Panthers, allowing scores to quickly become lopsided. But now, playing against schools with smaller enrollments than that of NHS, the number of players on each sideline should remain fairly even.
“We’ll (still) have eight starters playing offense and defense, but now everyone will be run down,” said junior quarterback/defensive back Michael Wood. “Now our third quarter, when we’re running out of gas, is going to be their third quarter when they are running out of gas too.”
The heavy workload seemed to effect the Panthers’ offense in particular, as the team struggled to sustain drives and amassed just 30 points over the course of last season. But the transition to the 8-man game should serve to bolster Nederland’s numbers in that area, as playing with fewer guys on the field tends to lead to higher scoring affairs, something which Jones is familiar with.
Nederland played at the 8-man level in the coach’s first two years at the helm back in 2006 and 2007 and enjoyed a great amount of success. The Panthers went a combined 11-7 in those two seasons, taking two regular season division titles and averaging just under 30 points per outing.
“8-man football is a fun game because there is so much offense going on,” Jones said. “You make a couple of good blocks for a real good athlete and he can be off to the races.”
While the coach’s experience will no doubt benefit his squad, he does acknowledge that there are some things new for his players to learn and that getting a grasp on the nuances of the game will be a weakness early. But even though it may take some time to work out all the kinks, the prospect of celebrating several victories this season has the Panthers excited to get back on the field.
“It really has (motivated us),” Wood said. “When Fairview was up here doing their ‘Summit Camp,’ we used to lose to their freshman team. (This year) we kicked the (heck) out of their JV team and it just gets your hopes up that, ‘Yeah, we can really do this.'”
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