By Rick Peterson Jr. for KSHSAA Covered
Six-player football has been picking up momentum in Kansas over the past few years, helping rejuvenate small-school programs struggling with low numbers and morale.
A new era is on the horizon, and excitement for the six-player game is at an all-time high after it was approved last year by the Kansas State High School Activities Association for championship status beginning next fall.
“That takes it to a whole new level,” Almena-Northern Valley coach Marvin Gebhard said. “If anything, that was kind of the downfall of going to six-man was that idea that, ‘Oh, you’re not playing for a KSHSAA state championship. Now, that’s gone.”
The number of six-player high school football teams is set to nearly double to 26 squads this season.
The Wild West Bowl served as the state championship for six-player football in Kansas since 2016, and the Kansas 6-Player Association held the third edition of the Six-Man All-Star Classic earlier this month at Fort Hays State’s Lewis Field Stadium.
“I feel like we set a good example for KSHSAA to follow,” said Dalton Mackley, a recent Weskan grad who helped lead the North team to a 25-19 win in the All-Star Game back on June 4. “It’s good to (be KSHSAA sanctioned) just because all the other sports are like that. It was fun without it, but I think it will be good (for the game).”
Gebhard’s Huskies just completed their second season in six-player football, making the move after enduring a difficult season at the eight-player ranks in 2019.
“It was tough,” Gebhard said of the initial transition to six-player. “It’s a totally different game with a lot of different rules. Your offensive sets and what you’re going to see week to week from a defensive standpoint varies, so it was difficult at first, but we stuck with it.
“The kids really enjoy it. In the end, it’s still football. You saw some big hits out here (in the All-Star Game). Those people who don’t think it’s football — they just think it’s a track meet — look at the scoreboard, watch the game. These kids play hard.”
Gebhard believes the Huskies are on the rise after winning seven games last year. He said the community has embraced the switch to the six-man. The Huskies won three state titles at the eight-player level under Chuck Fessenden.
“We have such a good community at the Valley, and they love football,” Gebhard said. “They travel well. And we’re fortunate right now that we have a good group of kids coming through and we’re having some success. That helps the buy-in with the community when you’re having success.”
Previously existing six-player football programs include Ashland, Burrton, Cunningham, Bird City-Cheylin, Deerfield, Fowler, Rexford-Golden Plains, Tribune-Greeley County, Moscow, Natoma, Northern Valley, Rozel-Pawnee Heights, Rolla, Weskan and Ransom-Western Plains/Healy, which played a partial schedule last year.
Newcomers dropping down from the eight-player ranks are Buffalo-Altoona Midway, Chase, Chetopa, Ingalls, LeRoy-Southern Coffey County, Lost Springs-Centre, Peabody-Burns, Southern Cloud, Tescott, Waverly, Wetmore and Winona-Triplains/Brewster.
In the state’s last six-player football game before it becomes sanctioned by the Kansas High School Activities Association, the All-Stars showed off the game at its best in a hard-hitting competitive affair.
“It’s just a fabulous experience for the kids, and the coaches, too,” Gebhard said. “It was an opportunity for some of these kids to be around this much talent. A lot of these kids were stars on their teams, so to play with other guys and not have to carry the load, it was a fun environment and something these kids will take home with them forever. Typically, these All-Star Games have been skewed one way or the other. We work really hard to make it a fun game and even game. We want to have a good experience for everybody.”
Mackley had a hand in all four touchdowns for the North.
“Very hard hitting,” Mackley said. “I haven’t been this sore since last since last football season.”
Six-player football features a wide-open, fast-paced style and is played on a field 40 yards wide and 80 yards long. All players are eligible to catch a pass, and the quarterback must hand off, pitch or throw the ball before it passes the line of scrimmage. First downs are 15 yards.
“I’m a smaller dude, and fast, so being able to get more space on the field allows me to run more and try to use my speed and agility to get more yards,” Mackley said.
Derek George, who helped Natoma to the six-man state championship last year, was one of the standouts for the South team at the All-Star Game.
George is headed to Dodge City Community College, where he’ll play linebacker.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect (for recruiting),” George said. “I had two offers, one from Bethany, one from Dodge. Dodge was just going to work better for me for what I want to do after football, so I chose there.”
“We’ll see what the 11-man experience is like because I haven’t done it since before junior high.”
George said it’s been exciting to see six-player football take off in Kansas.
“It’s been great,” George said. “In past years we haven’t gotten near the recognition. … There’s a lot more schools that are dropping down to six-man, mainly because of the small school numbers. … I feel like it’s great that we’re getting the recognition now.”