A different animal: Hiawatha making the move down to 8-man

KIRKLAND - While drawing up new plays this year, Hiawatha football coach Jason Keneway said he’s frequently had to make sure he’s using the right number of players.

The Hawks are moving to eight-man football, and Keneway and the team have had to adjust along the way - including getting used to three fewer players on the field.

“I find myself drawing plays and I have to count how many guys I have drawn, to make sure I have the right amount of guys drawn,” Keneway said. “You’re so used to drawing 11 guys out there you don’t think twice about it. It’s fun. It’s very offensive-minded and I’m the offensive coach, so I enjoy it. But we’re going into a season on short notice and I don’t know if these eight-man plays are going to work.”

The Hawks won the Northeastern Athletic Conference in 2019, tying with Marquette and winning a playoff game. It was their first playoff win since 1987.

When the season gets underway March 19 at Alden-Hebron, the Hawks will be facing not only an old NAC foe but the first eight-man state champs in 2018. Polo, the Hawks Week 4 opponent, won the 2019 eight-man title.

This year, like at other levels, there will be no postseason.

“It won’t be a great feeling at the end of the season when you’re just done,” Keneway said. “There’s no closure for us. That will be tough.”

Keneway said there’s a lot of difference between the eight-man game and the traditional variety. And while he said in the past he was hesitant about moving to eight-man, he’s really starting to appreciate the intricacies of the game.

“Eight-man is kind of a different animal,” Keneway said. “It’s still football in every sense of the word, but scheme-wise it’s different. There’s a ton of onside kicks, most teams go for two, they typically don’t kick extra points. The field is the same length but it’s narrower, 40 yards instead of 53.”

Keneway said offensively there are many different formations, and teams will run multiple, dramatically different styles.

“Some teams will formation you to death,” Keneway said. “They will run five down lineman, quarterback under center, I-formation all ball game long. Other teams run three linemen, four receivers and spread you like crazy. Some teams run a variation of both. It seems like every team does very different-looking things. It’s not the uniform thing you see in 11-man. There’s a lot of different formations. So we’re going to play with a little bit of that too.”

The same applies on defense, although the offense dictates the defense more often than not, just like in the 11-man game. Although even then, there are caveats, Keneway said.

“Some teams will load up with four d-lineman and try to beat you to the quarterback,” Keneway said. “They are just trying to get to the quarterback right away,” Keneway said. “The angle is narrower. You have one less gap for a defensive end to get to a quarterback. So everything is really fast.”

Defensive lineman Jacob Smith said the team is ready to compete at the new level.

“It’s not great going to eight-man, but we’ve all made adjustments to come here and do our best,” Smith said.

Even though Smith said he had his reservations about eight-man, Keneway said the players are excited for the opportunity.

“They’re ready to get into eight-man, and it’s a whole new thing,” Keneway said. “Schools we used to play, some new schools, some familiar schools from the past. We start off with an old foe from the past. It’s fun.”

Quarterback Matt Korb said that even without a postseason, the team still hopes it can prove it’s one of the best in eight-man.

“We’re still going to go out and be competitive every day,” Korb said. “The playoffs would be nice to show everyone we’re the best 8-man team out there, but we’re still going to play competitive and win every game.”

Eddie Carifio

Has been the sports editor in DeKalb since 2014.