By Brian Rathbone • The Bulletin

GILCHRIST —

In the 2017 season, eight Gilchrist players loaded onto the bus to play a football game on Fridays.

What was waiting for them at the end of the bus ride most often resembled more of a butt-kicking than a football game.

Seven games were scheduled for that season for the Grizzlies, who were playing in the OSAA’s Class 1A eight-man division. Only three of those games lasted the full four quarters. Three games were canceled, another ended in a forfeit, and the other three ended in lopsided losses in which Gilchrist was outscored by a combined 112 points.

On occasion, as few as three players would attend practice.

“I wanted to quit,” admitted junior quarterback Jaekob Spurlock, wearing his home No. 22 jersey Wednesday before practice, recalling his freshman season. “But I stuck with it because if I start a sport, I’m going to finish it. But sometimes, it just wasn’t fun.”

Circumstances are a tad different in 2019. Now, a Gilchrist team without a senior on the roster has shot up the standings and will play Friday night for the 1A Special District 4 title on the road against undefeated Triangle Lake.

Football is fun again for the Grizzlies, and it’s because of a new program.

Gilchrist was not just losing on the playing field in 2017, it was also losing a numbers battle. With a steady decline in football participation, oftentimes the Grizzlies faced teams with 20 or more players — a luxury in the eight-man game — while they had only enough players to even the numbers on the gridiron.

Injuries proved costly. If a player went down, the Grizzlies went on a man short.

“There were times when we would play teams with 20 players, and we would have eight, and if somebody gets hurt, you have to play with seven,” Spurlock recalled. “And if another person gets injured — six, and they’re still playing with eight.”

“Our plays were off balance,” junior running back Micah Ellis said. “If we’d run to the right, we wouldn’t have an extra blocker there. It throws us all off. You didn’t get a break, it was ‘Iron Man’ football for four quarters. That was probably one of the more rough experiences for me.”

Enthusiasm for the program dwindled with the number of players.

It reached the point that coach Rick West questioned whether the school of 50-some students should continue to have a football program.

“Competing with schools that have a lot of kids with these schools that are dropping in enrollment, it’s really tough to field an eight-man team,” the fourth-year Gilchrist coach said. “If you get a couple of injuries, you’re in big trouble.”

Then came the saving grace. In 2018, the Oregon School Activities Association announced a two-year six-man football pilot program for schools with an adjusted enrollment of 89 or fewer students. Gilchrist fit the bill for the new six-man format last seen in Oregon in 1959.

“The best thing to see is them out here having fun, they’re smiling, they aren’t dreading playing in games,” West said. “You have to take them off the field — it’s like ‘OK guys, it’s time to quit,’ They love the game. It’s because of the switch to six-man.”

The thrill of the new style of football was immediate, but the results on the field were not. That was yet to come.

The 2018 Grizzles still struggled with numbers, still taking the field with only six healthy players, still an injury away from being outnumbered. Although Gilchrist played a man down in some games, no games were canceled, and only one ended with a forfeit. In the six games lasting four quarters, the Grizzlies went a respectable 3-3.

The taste of success carried over into the second six-man season. A trip to a camp at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande in June instilled confidence in the Grizzlies that no matter how big or small they may be, they can always “bring it,” Ellis reflected.

The Grizzlies put more emphasis on conditioning and logged more hours in the weight room. A team that was once a rolled ankle away from playing a man down now has more players available and has sustained fewer injuries, which West attributes to being more physically fit.

“The sole result of that is all the time that they’ve spent on this field; we’ve been doing this since June,” West said. “We been up here working out, they’ve put a ton of time in it, a lot of hard work, a lot of time. That’s the best thing about this whole thing is watching them improve.”

It certainly helps that the game is fun again. While the game may look different from the 11-man and eight-man formats, it’s still football, according to West.

It’s a fast-paced game, often resembling basketball on a 100-yard field of grass. There are trick plays, lots of them. And a big play is always just a broken tackle away.

“On offense, if you have an open lane, you better take it,” Spurlock said, explaining the strategies of the six-man game. “You have a lot of open space, you can use all your moves and make the crowd go: ‘Wow, that was great!’ ”

While there are fewer players playing on a narrower field (40 yards wide compared with the standard 55 yards) and needing 15 yards for a first down rather than 10, the most striking difference is that the six-man game resembles a well-organized game of backyard football in which every offensive player is an eligible receiver — including linemen.

In Gilchrist’s 50-13 home win over Eddyville last Friday, Mathew Holder, the team’s junior center, became a surprising threat in the passing game. And not just for his pass blocking.

“That was the biggest game of my life right there,” said Holder, who had more than 100 yards receiving despite playing on the offensive line.

“Second half, I got a lot of yards, like five first downs for our team in front of pretty much everyone because it was our Fall Festival game.”

The fun has been contagious. More boosters are in the stands to see the Grizzlies take the field, more players are coming out for football. But the most important change that West has seen with his team is the pride that has returned to the program. All that can be traced back to the resurrection of six-man football.

“Our practice attendance is almost perfect, which is kinda unheard-of. It’s just been a really good year,” West said. “They’re all doing well in school, everyone is excited and that’s the best thing to see. Everyone loves football, and to see them get excited and their heads are up and they are having fun, that’s what makes it worth it.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, brathbone@bendbulletin.com

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