Football teams find creative solutions to small numbers

By Ashley Bastock - The Blade

TOLEDO (AP) — Behind Toledo Christian Schools, head football coach Andrew Skeels is taking his team through another practice.

As 11 players get ready to practice a field goal, four more players line up opposite them.

But the four aren’t some kind of scout defense — they’re a makeshift goal post.

On this day, Skeels’ squad that usually has 23 players has just 19 out on the practice field, which at this point is actually on top of a hill in the park that sits behind the school. The football team is also sharing practice time with the boys and girls soccer teams, and the latter are using the practice field with the soccer goals and goal posts.

“We kind of try and get creative,” Skeels said.

Toledo Christian is one of the 88 schools in the state of Ohio that are classified as Division VII, meaning there are fewer than 115 boys in the school.

For some Division VII schools, Friday night under the lights happens with less than 20 varsity players on the sidelines — not even enough to play 11-on-11 during practice.

But fewer numbers for even the smallest schools doesn’t necessarily mean that their status in the win column takes a hit.

Division VII power McComb in Hancock County is 7-1 and has won the last three Blanchard Valley Conference titles.

This season, the Panthers have 28 student-athletes on their total team roster, combining varsity and JV. But even that number is down from the 42 players head coach Kris Alge had during the 2016 season.

Part of that is because of transfers, but there is also something else at play.

“It’s just that some of the kids aren’t playing football,” Alge said. “They didn’t play when they were little, I’m not sure why, but now we’re feeling the effects.”

Even with smaller numbers, Alge runs his practices with an emphasis on playing fast, even without live contact.

But McComb’s continued success even with dwindling personnel has to do with the culture that Alge and former teams have established according to senior quarterback, defensive back, kicker, and punter Tanner Schroeder.

“I think it’s mostly tradition,” Schroeder said. “We started it as freshmen, and we didn’t have to contribute a whole lot, but we still had a good varsity team and a couple of us got in here and there.”

While tradition carries some programs, for some of the smallest schools, football every year isn’t a given.

Stryker High School in Williams County graduates approximately 30 students each year. Their football program took an 87-year hiatus, with this being the first season they have fielded a varsity team since 1931.

Head coach Justin Sonnenberg leads a team of 19 players. Last season, when the school had a JV squad, Sonnenberg said that was his first indication that a varsity team could be on the field this fall.

“We started to see the fundamentals that we’ve been trying to implement carry over into games, and they started to see some success on the field,” he said. “We were very, very excited that they would get the opportunity to play Friday night this year.”

Considering this group knows what it’s like to not even be able to play, Sonnenberg says that has helped to establish a team identity.

“They are bought in, they’re extremely hard working,” he said of his winless squad. “All of the excitement and stuff was there at the beginning, and people said they were interested. But now we have a group of athletes that aren’t just interested, they’re actually invested and dedicated.

“They don’t take a single snap for granted. They’re very thankful that they get to play football for Stryker because there’s definitely a lot of people who would have loved to play but didn’t have the opportunity.”

How each of these schools practices varies slightly, but all coaches emphasized the need to get creative.

Toledo Christian (2-6) focuses on offense one day, then defense another, alternating throughout the week. McComb practices their JV and varsity teams together, and relies on coaches to fill in any holes during 11-on-11 drills, while Stryker does offense and defense everyday, but doesn’t use a scout team.

Each of the three schools also relies on a majority of their players, but especially their starters, to play multiple positions.

“Personally, it pushes me to get better for my team knowing that I have to do as much as I can to put us in positions to win,” said Toledo Christian’s Trevor Wensink, who plays quarterback, free safety, and also kicks and punts for the Eagles.

“You kind of know you have a job to do and someone else might not be able to do it as good as you,” Schroeder said. “So you have to kinda just put the pain aside and keep going.”

At each of the schools, multiple underclassmen also see significant varsity time. While there is a steep learning curve for those players, it also can pay off down the line with the same player starting three or four years.

“As long as they don’t get intimidated,” Alge said. “They know they have to step up, that’s part of being a younger guy. If someone goes down, it’s next man in. They have to step in and play and we expect just as much from them as we do the varsity players.”

Before he began coaching at Toledo Christian, Skeels coached freshman football at Southview. He said that the appreciation for playing time is something that he sees now as players get older.

“I think that the young kids take it for granted how much they get to play because coming from a bigger school, you don’t get to play that much,” he said. “I think it’s more fun to not come off the field than to come off the field, and I think as they get older they realize that.”

While Division VII teams may have fewer players on their rosters, that’s not a fact that the athletes themselves dwell on.

For most of them, a 20-person team is just the norm, something that they’ve adapted to.

“Throughout my three years here, just having around 20 guys has just been pretty normal,” said Toledo Christian wide receiver and safety Sam Kuhn. “This is just how we’ve all grown to be. I think we all have just gotten used to it.”

Toledo Christian senior Joseph Delvaux is in the unique position of knowing what it’s like to attend a bigger school — this is his first year at Toledo Christian after transferring from Whitmer.

But even for him, the difference in having 22 teammates is a non-factor when it comes to what happens on the field.

“Football is football,” Delvaux said. “We’re going to play it the same whether we have 11 kids or whether we have 100.”

By Ashley Bastock

The Blade

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