For the first time in program history, Liberal High School’s football team will compete in eight-man football.
A year after joining the Western Missouri Conference, the Bulldogs will be apart of the newly aligned eight-man football division along with fellow WEMO members, Appleton City, Osceola, Drexel and Rich Hill. An 11-man division will be comprised of Jasper, Adrian, Archie and Midway.
While the drop from 11-man to eight-man is mainly due to falling numbers of high schoolers turning out to play football, the move is also made with the players’ safety in mind, “The problem is, you have freshmen coming in that are 14 year old kids, going up and padding up against 17 to 18 year old kids. So you’re not getting those younger kids to go out. ” Liberal High School athletic director, Travis Walton said over the phone.
“Kids just aren’t playing because of head injuries or just not having the numbers. I know we have a hand full of kids that want to play but their parents won’t let them. I think once concussions became a big deal, you see more and more of that.”
For Liberal, this move was mulled over for the past few years, and finalized in December when at their first football meeting, just 13 players fully committed to playing in the fall. “Once August rolls around, there may be more or there may be a kid or two less.” stated Walton about the possibility of that number changing.
What the drop down to eight-man also does for Liberal is enable them to have a freshman and junior varsity schedule to boost development in the sport, “That’s kind of our end goal, to get a program built back up and have a JV schedule. Whether you’re good or not, you need kids to play JV.”
As for their full varsity schedule, Liberal will play all other eight-man WEMO members, adding Chilhowee and Northwest high school, both located two hours northeast of Liberal, along with Chetopa in southeast Kansas and Bishop LeBlond from the St. Joseph area. As of now, week nine is still open on the Bulldogs schedule.
Though the move to eight-man was anticipated by Liberal, the one gripe is ending a longtime rivalry in football with Jasper, “That was the biggest disappointment of the whole deal is that you have that game that the kids really look forward to. Us (Liberal) and Jasper both went into the WEMO at the same time with the dismantling of the SRVC. I know the kids enjoy playing and competing against each other. That was the one tough thing and those are things you don’t want to lose, which we could still play if we chose to, it would just be an exhibition game. ” said Walton.
“We already anticipated it based off of last year,” Jasper first year head coach, Sam Sturgis told me over the phone. “Liberal is probably our biggest rival that I wish this class had an opportunity to play again and get some redemption. That’s definitely an in-conference rivalry that I hate to see them lose.”
Jasper will add Lockwood, Sherwood, Diamond, Windsor and Forsyth to their schedule to fill in for the WEMO members that are now eight-man.
“It comes with class one,” Sturgis continued “Greenfield went through it. That’s one of those things that you roll with the punches. Our biggest thing is we (Jasper) are a football school, our community supports us as a football school. We are doing everything we can to ensure that it doesn’t happen to our community.”
Last year Jasper got a taste of eight-man as their JV team had to play two quarters in a game, “Our JV kids hated it. They were like ‘coach please don’t ever let us go eight-man.”
Sturgis’ response was simple, “That’s on you guys. You have to ensure that we have enough players out here so we don’t ever have to go eight-man.”
His players responded on the first day of summer weights when 35 athletes showed up for Jasper’s football workouts.