The 126th football season at Mercersburg Academy—which fielded its first football team in 1894—will be unlike any of the previous 125 at the school. In 2019, Mercersburg joins a growing number of preparatory and public schools across the country in a move to eight-player football, which is a more wide-open version of the classic American sport played with eight players per side compared with 11.
While the number of schools playing 11-player football is decreasing nationally, eight-player numbers are rising. More than 1,100 teams nationwide play eight-player football. In Pennsylvania, Mercersburg is joining prep-school peers Perkiomen School (which was the first private school in the state to begin eight-player football, beginning in 2018), George School, and Valley Forge Military Academy as programs that will field eight-player teams in 2019. The schools have announced the formation of the Keystone State 8-Player Football League (KSFL)
. Two more private schools are set to join the league in the coming weeks, as their programs finalize transitions. The KSFL will feature an eight-week season, with round-robin play and playoffs.
Mercersburg will remain a member of the Mid-Atlantic Prep League in all other sports in which it currently competes. The school joined the MAPL in 2000.
Just in the last four years, eight-player prep-school leagues have formed in New England (the NorthEast 8-Man Football League) and Virginia (the Virginia Independent Schools Football League). In 2018, Perkiomen competed in the NorthEast 8-Man League (against the likes of Millbrook School in Millbrook, N.Y., and Pomfret School and The Gunnery in Connecticut). Virginia schools that have moved to the eight-player game include St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, and Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News, among others.
“This move is the result of an extensive process that included research and analysis of our best options for providing a good experience for our students in the game of football,” says Rick Hendrickson, Mercersburg’s director of athletics. “We will now provide a viable, long-term option for football—one that makes football accessible and attractive to a broader number of students at our school. We found in our research with other prep schools that with eight-player football, injury rates have been reduced, participation and retention rates have increased, and morale has improved at those schools. I want to specifically thank Ken Baker, the athletic director at Perkiomen, for his leadership in moving to eight-player football and for his key role in establishing our football league.”
Eight-player football is full-contact, tackle football. The eight-player game removes three players from an 11-man lineup (two linemen and a backfield player on offense, with a variety of defensive options), which opens the game up for higher-scoring contests and puts a premium on athleticism and skill rather than size and brute force. Like in traditional 11-player football, there is no minimum or maximum height or weight for eligibility.View this short video
for a more in-depth look at the game of eight-player football at the prep-school level.
Teams compete on a 100-yard field that is 40 yards wide (compared with the 53 1/3-yard width of an 11-main field), and the reduced number of players on the field at one time allows many players to play just offense or defense instead of both. This also has the effect of reducing the frequency of injury, given the smaller size of the average player and less time spent on the field. Mercersburg’s existing football field inside the Jimmy Curran Track will continue to be used for Blue Storm football contests.
“This is an opportunity for us to continue to support and adapt an athletic program that is so important to the life and history of our school,” says Katie Titus, Mercersburg’s head of school. “We are continually evaluating and assessing all of our programs to make sure they—first and foremost—fully benefit our students. By moving to eight-player football, our students and our community will continue to enjoy the spirit, the character, the camaraderie, and the passion of the game from a more manageable standpoint for a school of 440 students. I also have no doubt that our fans and alumni will quickly discover how exciting the eight-player game is for spectators.”
Eight-player football participants frequently go on to play at all levels of college football (including NCAA Division I, II, and III institutions). Alumni of eight-player football at the high-school level include a Heisman Trophy winner (Rashaan Salaam, running back, University of Colorado), an Outland Trophy winner (Dean Steinkuhler, offensive lineman, University of Nebraska), and fellow National Football League players Leighton Vander Esch (linebacker, Dallas Cowboys/Boise State University), Chad Greenway (linebacker, Minnesota Vikings/University of Iowa) and Josh Brown (placekicker for several NFL teams—most recently the New York Giants/University of Nebraska).
Mercersburg sponsors 26 sports and 45 athletic teams in total at the varsity, junior-varsity, and thirds levels.
“Football carries a legacy at Mercersburg; one that dates to the start of the school under Dr. William Mann Irvine,” Hendrickson says. “We’re going to continue that legacy and write exciting new chapters in the sport that our students and our alumni can join us in supporting.”