Maple Grove Turns To 8-Man

Red Dragons’ Numbers Low As First Week Of Practice Gets Underway

“It’s a tough decision, especially given the rich history of football at Maple Grove, but we’re doing the best we can with the situation we’ve been presented.” • Justin Hanft, Maple Grove football coach

Maple Grove’s football program has long been one of the finest in the New York Public High School Athletic Association. Back-to-back trips to the state Class D title game in 2016 and 2017 and a berth in last year’s Section VI championship contest are just three of the most recent examples of its success.

But with the opening game of the 2019 season just a little more than two weeks away and with only 19 players on the roster, the school has decided to play eight-man football this fall.

Head coach Justin Hanft announced the move to his players and their parents Wednesday night after notifying Section VI of the decision earlier in the day.

“It’s a tough decision, especially given the rich history of football at Maple Grove,” he said, “but we’re doing the best we can with the situation we’ve been presented.”

Maple Grove now joins Frewsburg as the two area teams which will be playing eight-man football beginning next month. The Bears made their intentions known in March. Hanft said that efforts to recruit additional players at Maple Grove have been ongoing for nearly a year, but it wasn’t met with the desired results.

“Hopefully we’ll continue to focus on building the program back up and stay positive,” Hanft said. “At the end of the day, in eight-man football, you still have to tackle, you still have to block you still have to make catches and you still have to make plays. That’s what we said to our kids. They’re looking forward to it, they’re excited.”

Hanft lauded the leadership efforts of captains Ayden Reagle, Jake Tomlinson and Kyle Trim, who spoke to the team during Wednesday’s announcement.

“They’re going to be the glue that keeps this program alive, not only this year, but also in the future,” Hanft said.

Maple Grove’s new schedule is not known at this point, but Jay Sirianni, a member of the Section VI football committee and the schedule maker for the section’s C and D classifications, said it is his understanding that the Red Dragons will play an eight-game schedule that includes games with Frewsburg and teams from Section V.

Furthermore, Sirianni, who led Southwestern to state championships in 2008 and 2009, embraces the idea of eight-man football.

“I think eight-man football is a good thing,” Sirianni said. “I think it’s something that will bring football back to schools, so they can have — especially at the smaller schools — their own team.

“And you never know, it could become a federated sport. … They’re not there yet, but who knows? In the future it could be.”

In the meantime, Sirianni said that Section VI is “going to do everything we can to fill those games” of the11-man programs, which now have a hole in their schedule because of Maple Grove’s departure.

“We do that every year, because it seems every year right up to the beginning of the season someone is dropping or merging,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to fill those games for them, because they deserve games. Those kids deserve to play.”

Hanft, who is beginning his second season at the helm of his alma mater, led Maple Grove to a 6-4 record in 2018, losing to eventual state-champion Clymer/Sherman/Panama in the sectional championship game at New Era Field. Hanft took over the coaching duties from Curt Fischer, who resigned after the 2018 season with a 221-45 record. During his 25-year career, Fischer won nine sectional titles, including two when the Red Dragons merged with Chautauqua Lake in 2014 and 2015; claimed state crowns in 1998 and 2008 when he finished 13-0 both years; and had just one losing season — 4-5 — in 2003.

How the Red Dragons adjust to eight-man football remains to be seen, but Hanft is confident it’s the right move for the program.

“We’re making the best of it,” he said. “I feel like I’m a student of the game again. I have to go back and teach myself the Xs and Os, and what formations are allowable. (Eight-man football) is a wide-open game. I’m an offensive-minded guy, so we’re going to be putting up some points, I can guarantee you that.”