LANARK – Eastland and Pearl City schools have decided to tackle the problem of declining participation in youth football and safety concerns by eliminating tackling from the game.
Beginning with next fall’s season, seventh- and eighth-graders will play 7-on-7 no-tackle football.
The Eastland school board approved the change March 13, while Pearl City’s board passed it March 20. Eastland Coach Randy Asche spoke to both boards.
Asche and his staff proposed the change in response to declining participation rates.
“We only had six freshmen and six eighth-graders last year,” Asche said March 16. “Last week, there were six seventh-graders from each school who came to a meeting.”
His goal is to have seven to eight players from each class.
Safety is another factor, Asche said, citing public concern about children suffering concussions and other injuries playing full-contact football.
“If you go get destroyed out there on the football field, it’s mentally and physically a beating,” Asche said. “There are the concussion scares that are out there. We can do a lot of injury prevention in the weight room, build up their core strength and flexibility.”
In June and July, high school coaches will teach junior high players both traditional and 7-on-7 skills, with non-contact drills. Practice begins Aug. 7, and players will be required to meet academic eligibility and attend at least two workout sessions per week at either Eastland or Pearl City.
Those sessions will focus on development of upper- and lower-body strength, with individualized programs for students, and training weight and body lifts for beginning athletes. Agility and speed training also will be emphasized, Asche said.
“There’ll be an athletic trainer at the respective schools. The kids can travel to the other school for practice. Hopefully, we can develop guys to play multiple positions and create a fun environment for the kids so they can develop at their pace.”
Games begin Aug. 26. E-PC players probably will be playing against themselves, at least at first, but other schools can participate, with 7-on-7 games scheduled the same as regular games.
“I know there’s been a concern about if you take out the physical aspect of the game,” Asche said. “To me, it’s a mindset. We can teach them what we want them to learn, and what will help them advance and progress through our program.”
A parent, Anthony Preston, asked at the March 13 board meeting if the program might switch back to tackle if the 7-on-7 does not work. Asche and administrators said at the meeting that the program will be assessed for effectiveness.
Other youth football associations in Carroll County aren’t looking to make changes to their programs. Tim Randecker is president of the West Carroll Youth Football Association, which includes Mount Carroll, Savanna, and Thomson. The association is unaffiliated with the West Carroll School District.
“At this point, no, there’s been no talk about that,” Randecker said of changing to 7-on-7 non-tackle.
The WCYFA starts at fifth through eighth grade, with boys able to play one grade older than they are.
“We usually have to due to low numbers,” Randecker said. “Last year, eighth grade was pretty good. I think we had 17 or 18 kids. Our sixth-grade was our worst. We only had five kids out. The fifth-graders had a lot of double-headers.”
The association’s season runs from August to October, with the WCYFA playing against Chadwick-Milledgeville, Eastland, and others.
In Chadwick and Milledgeville, boys in fifth through eighth grades play in a junior tackle program which isn’t affiliated with the school. The program isn’t looking to change from tackle right now, said Scott Frederick, assistant coach.
“We first heard that Eastland was thinking about it, and that it was going to be brought up to the board. The way they made it sound, the high school coaches wanted to take it over,” Frederick said.
Chadwick Junior Tackle’s season runs from the end of of August until about the second week in October. Frederick said fifth- and sixth-grade games are on Saturdays, with seventh- and eighth-grade games on Tuesdays. All games are played in Milledgeville.
Frederick said the junior tackle players practive for about 20 to 30 minutes alongside high school players. The eighth-grade players do try to run the defense they’ll run in high school.
“We’ve tried to teach kids tackling with heads up,” Frederick said. “I played in high school, and I guarantee we put our heads down. You’re still going to get hit in the head sooner or later.”
There were about 11 or 12 eighth-grade players on last year’s team.
“We always have to pull up a few seventh-graders,” Frederick said. “We also pull up a few sixth-graders to seventh. We stay right around 8 to 12. Our eighth-grade had one kid from Polo.”
To sign up a student or for more information on the new 7-on-7 program, call Eastland Middle School, 815-493-6341, by Aug. 7.
With 7-on-7 football, there's a focus on passing. Defending players can stop a runner with a one-hand touch below the neck.
"It's not flag. There is physical contact," Eastland coach Randy Asche said. "You can have a center to practice your quarterback-center exchange. There's five eligible receivers and the quarterback. The center would be the seventh. There can be a 4-second clock. If the ball isn't handed off, it's counted as a sack."