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Washington School for the Deaf among small schools embracing 6-player football

Trend for non-traditional football is on the rise

By , Columbian staff writer
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Washington School for the Deaf players practices a play Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the WSD football field in Vancouver. Some of the state's smaller 1B schools are transitioning to 6-man football, including Washington School for the Deaf.
Washington School for the Deaf players practices a play Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the WSD football field in Vancouver. Some of the state's smaller 1B schools are transitioning to 6-man football, including Washington School for the Deaf. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

At 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, Evan Stromberg proudly lists his position as “everything” for the Washington School for the Deaf’s new 6-player football team.

That includes offensive lineman, where the Terriers’ junior does more than block and open holes for the run game.

“Two weeks ago, I had three catches,” Stromberg said.

This is 6-player football, a game where everybody is an eligible receiver, speed is everything, and one missed tackle can lead to a touchdown.

The game originated in Nebraska in 1934 and decades later, is still played in selective states. Washington is now one of them.

In May 2020, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Representative Assembly passed an amendment that allows Class 1B schools the option to participate in 6-player football or remain playing its traditional form of football, 8-player. Previously, some 1B teams played 6-player games on an experimental level.

WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman estimates 12-15 schools statewide currently participate in 6-player football on a full- or part-time basis. That’s headlined by the state’s only full-time 6-player league, the 1B Coastal Football League, featuring Clallam Bay, Lake Quinault, Mary M. Knight, Northwest Christian of Lacey, Washington School for the Deaf and Wishkah Valley.

Should at least 20 schools offer 6-player football full-time in the future, Hoffman said the WIAA will have a football championship.

WSD’s co-head coaches, Matthew Schindel and Caleb Hinton played college football at NCAA Division III Gallaudet University, a private university in Washington, D.C., devoted to deaf and hard of hearing students.

But learning the 6-player game as high school coaches came with some learning curves.

Schindel has previous experience at WSD as an assistant football coach, but for Hinton, it’s his first year on the staff. As high-scoring as the 8-player game is, a combined 12 players on the field for 6-player football makes for a different game all together, Schindel said.

“There’s a lot more running, more touchdowns, more tackling and just a lot more activity,” said Schindel, who coaches the defense. Hinton is in charge of the offense.

“In 8-man, every play was really short and abbreviated, but in 6-man, it takes a long time to run a play. There’s a lot more action on the field and I think it’s more exciting.”

The rules are unique. To name a few, in addition to six players on a side, fields are 80 yards long, quarters are 10 minutes, and 15 yards is required for a first down. The quarterback can’t advance the ball past the line of scrimmage while running and all players are eligible receivers.

Hinton, who also coached at Gallaudet after his playing career ended, said while some teams may run the same handful of plays in 6-player, the Terriers continue to stockpile their playbook. All plays have lots of flexibility, especially since any player can touch the ball and score a touchdown on any play.

Matchups also matter, he said.

“I think what’s successful for a game is when you run a play and you see what the defense is going to do,” Hinton said. “And then you can see if you want to keep that play or retire it to match what’s going on the field.”

In recent years, alternatives to traditional football continue to be attractive options.

States including Indiana and Utah are offering an 8-player classification for the first time and in neighboring Oregon, the Oregon School Activities Association now awards four levels of football championships across its classifications: 11-, 9-, 8-, and 6-player teams.

And the trend for non-traditional football is rising. Last month, the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) latest participation data revealed that while the number of schools nationwide offering traditional football dropped 3.6 percent from 2018-19 through 2021-22, the 6-, 8- and 9-player options grew by 12.7 percent.

That’s true for Washington. Months before the WIAA’s amendment for 6-player football passed, Mary M. Knight High School football coach and athletic director Tom Kerr initiated discussions within District IV about 6-player football after seeing projected future enrollment numbers for the rural Mason County school.

Not only does 6-player football provide an alternative to the 8-player game, Kerr said, but this new era of football is a viable option for smaller 1B schools that struggle fielding a football team. At Mary M. Knight, the Owls have seven football players in a school with 20 boys in grades 9-12.

“It saved football at our school,” Kerr said of 6-player football’s adoption. “The only reason why I was such a big proponent of 6-man football is it was going to be the saving grace for our school to have a football program moving forward.”

For the Terriers at WSD, the 2022 season is their second in the 6-player game. Athletic director Ron Spratlen said he believes this new version gives the program a better shot at competitive balance while also maintaining healthy participation numbers. He said the Terriers plan to maintain 6-player status annually as long as it remains an option.

It’s early, but the move has been beneficial. The Terriers are 1-2 ahead of Saturday’s homecoming game hosting Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. Kickoff is at 3 p.m. at Deveraux Field, just south of WSD’s campus. This marks the first time since 2019 the Terriers will play an opponent of Deaf peers.

Of the 18 players on WSD’s team, Schindel and Hinton estimate the average football experience is 2-3 years.

Stromberg, the junior, and senior Alexz Schaut are captains and two of the team’s more seasoned players. Both have past experience playing traditional 11-player football, but 6-player has its own benefits, they said.

“I like 6-man because it’s more fun and it just runs quicker,” said Schaut, a receiver. “You really have a chance to run the ball or make a touchdown. And you get a lot of experience at different positions.”

Said Stromberg: “I feel like 11-man and 6-man are two completely different worlds. There’s a lot more space, so a lot more running room. And a lot more time being taken off the clock.”

What is 6-player football?

The 6-player game originated in Nebraska in 1934 and is still played in selective states.

The rules of 6-player football are different from the traditional 11-player game. Here are some of them:

  • Fields are 80 yards long.
  • Quarters are 10 minutes.
  • Six players are on each side of the ball.
  • All players, including the quarterback, are eligible receivers.
  • 15 yards is required for a first down.
  • Quarterback can’t advance the ball past the line of scrimmage while running.
  • Point-after conversions runs and passes are worth one point; kicks are worth two points. Field goals are worth four points.
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