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Neligh-Oakdale has a decision to make about its football team. It can either move up to 11-man next year despite having just 22 players on the team or stay 8-man and be ineligible for the playoffs.
The Warrior football team has already clinched its third straight playoff berth this season with a 5-1 record in 8-man. But according to enrollment as of the last Friday in September, Neligh-Oakdale has 87 students in grades 9-11. The maximum for 8-man football is 83 students.
Principal George Loofe said Neligh-Oakdale has until Nov. 30 to declare its classification, but he’s already addressed his concerns to the Board of Education.
“My recommendation would be to do whatever the coach wants to do,” Loofe said. “We’ve had practices with 14 kids. We took 16 to Niobrara-Verdigre. There’s no way we could play 11 man, so the recommendation is to play 8-man.”
Loofe, who is also an assistant football coach, said a formal decision has not been made on next season’s classification.
Neligh-Oakdale has been playing 8-man for the last four years, although Loofe said the only year the school was under the 83 count was the initial year. The Warriors were granted a waiver the last two years to remain 8-man and still be eligible for playoffs.
“It’s not like 11-man is a sin. We played 11-man forever and only played 8-man the last four years,” Loofe said. “Actually, we’ve only been under the 83 count the initial year we qualified. We’ve been over every year. We’ve been fortunate to play 8 man these years.”
Football coach Ron Beacom said there are many practices where the Warriors have just “15, 16 able bodies.” They are currently suiting up just 16 players. Moving to 11-man would be difficult for his team, Beacom said.
"Now you're talking about five kids standing on your sideline. There's ways to be creative to find ways to practice around that, but ultimately what ends up happening is you're playing teams with 50-some players and you're playing every kid you have out,” he said.
Beacom said concerns have been raised about safety, considering a smaller freshman could be on the field against older and bigger players. Beacom said his philosophy is to not put a player in a situation where he could be hurt or outmatched too much.
"Right now we're still playing all of our freshmen, but fortunately our freshmen have shown they can compete and there's not a huge danger in putting them out there," he said.
Loofe said looking at grades 8-10, enrollment will put the Warriors under 83 in September 2016, which would make them playoff eligible in 8-man in 2017. That means Neligh-Oakdale would be ineligible for playoffs next year but not the following year. Loofe said he expects a similar number of players on the football team next year.
Beacom said not having an opportunity to qualify for playoffs next year would change how he motivates his athletes, although he admitted part of him struggles with not having his current juniors able to qualify for playoffs as seniors.
“We have to be creative in how we motivate and try to get the kids to understand it’s more than just winning. It’s all those extra lessons they learn through participation,” Beacom said.
Neligh-Oakdale is currently 5-1 on the season and 3-0 in the district. The Warriors are tied with Elgin Public Pope John atop district standings with the championship expected to be decided on Friday when the Warriors host the Wolfpack.