Paul Adams wrote this story on the future of NCTL 11-man football
THUMB AREA — As the 2011 football season is set to begin this week, there is a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the North Central Thumb League.
What is certain is that for 11-man football, the NCTL will be down to four teams following the conclusion of this season.
Memphis is set to become a member of the Greater Thumb Conference for the 2012-13 school year. With Akron-Fairgrove, Carsonville-Port Sanilac and Owendale-Gagetown committed to 8-man football, that leaves Deckerville, Kingston, North Huron and Peck as the only remaining 11-man teams.
The NCTL has been around for decades and it has produced numerous playoff teams.
Now, the league, with a storied history, is at a crossroads. Will it be able to survive with just four 11-man teams, or will what remains go the route of 8-man football?
At North Huron, coach Travis Fischer said his school has made the commitment to playing 11-man football.
“I’m an old school guy, it’s 11-on-11,” said Fischer. “My varsity year, we had 13 guys and one guy got hurt, so we finished with 12 guys. Those are memories I will never forget.
“I will fight to keep us 11-man as long as possible.”
The last year the NCTL was at full strength was 2008. Following that season, Akron-Fairgrove, Owen-Gage and CPS all decided to play 8-man football.
Dryden left the league after the 2009 season to become a member of the Genesee Area Conference. Dryden was replaced by Deckerville in 2010.
Still, there was pressure on the remaining schools to fill their schedules. With only four league games, NCTL teams must find at least four games for an eight-game schedule.
In the case of North Huron, it has had to do its fair share of traveling, playing games against the likes of Mio and Whittemore-Prescott in the past. This year, the Warriors will host Tawas.
The Warriors have scheduled bigger Thumb teams, as well, playing Brown City, Harbor Beach and Ubly, all from the Greater Thumb East.
“The last three years we’ve been 4-5 because our schedule has been brutal,” Fischer said.
Meanwhile, Deckerville has been able to keep a couple of its GTE rivalries intact, playing Marlette and Ubly this season.
The Eagles are playing Almont in the season’s final contest. Almont has an enrollment of 670 compared to Deckerville’s 199.
The Eagles open the season hosting Mendon, a perennial state title contender for each of the last four seasons. Mendon has an enrollment of 242 and has lost just four games in the past four season. The Hornets won a state championship in 2007.
Kingston has faced similar scheduling challenges, playing Big Rapids Crossroads Academy, Arenac Eastern and Saginaw Buena Vista this season.
“It’s getting harder and harder to schedule games,” said Kingston coach Lane Walker. “Trying to find schools our size to play is tough while avoiding two- or three-hour bus rides.”
Walker remains optimistic about the future of the NCTL, though.
“I think the league can survive, but we need to find another school,” he said.
Both Fischer and Walker have heard that Mayville has expressed interest in becoming a member of the NCTL, but that is only a rumor at this point.
One option would be for CPS, which has 21 players on this year’s roster, to bump back to 11-man football.
The Tigers won an unofficial state 8-man championship in 2010.
Coach Tim Brabant said there is no possibility of his school coming back to play 11-man football again.
“We are never going back. The kids like this, it’s a lot more fun,” said Brabant.
CPS is part of the Mid-Michigan 8-Man League.
When asked about the future of the NCTL, Brabant said there is always the possibility for the existing members to drop down and play 8-man.
“We have a league that is open for them,” he said.
Even though CPS had success last year, going 10-0, it was the first winning football season for the Tigers since 2005.
In 2009, the first year of 8-man, the Tigers were just 2-7. They are 0-9 in 2008, their final season as a member of the NCTL.
“It was the best option for the kids,” Brabant said about making the move down. “Playing 8-man was the best choice for us.”
Fischer doesn’t hold any ill will to the teams that left the NCTL to play 8-man football.
“I understand for some of the schools (playing 8-man) is a huge benefit,” he said.
“Everybody has to do what they feel they have to do. But to me, I think every team that went to 8-man probably should have.
“I don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with 8-man football. It’s a viable option.”
Fischer does feel that 8-man football, which now has a Michigan High School Athletic Association sanctioned playoff, should have some participation rules, though.
“I think the state should have a rule, where if you have X amount of kids come out, you should have to play 11-man,” he said. “If you are under X amount, then 8-man is a wonderful option.
“If you have a roster over 15 or 16 kids, there’s no reason not to be playing 11-man football.”
Fischer and Walker both have the privilege of coaching where they played.
They each have a tremendous amount of respect for the NCTL’s past, and hope for its future.
“I know we’re not as big as other schools, but I feel that the NCTL has had some damn good football games over the last few years,” Fischer said. “I would hate to see the NCTL dissolve. It would break my heart.”
Added Walker: “I have faith in the NCTL. It’s a great league. I don’t want to see it die.”