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Porter’s Chapel will switch to 8-man football in 2021

When they played a couple of eight-man football games the past two seasons, it was a quirk in the schedule for Porter’s Chapel Academy.

Beginning next year, it will be the entire schedule.

Porter’s Chapel will switch from 11-man football to the Mid-South Association of Independent Schools’ 8-man division beginning in 2021, head coach and athletic director Blake Purvis said.

Purvis said the decision was based on several factors, all of which had a common theme — a changing landscape in the MAIS’ smallest 11-man classification that left PCA with fewer similar-sized opponents and a widening competitive gap, as more and more small schools switched to 8-man football.

“Traditionally, all of the schools that Porter’s Chapel has competed with in 11-man have dropped to 8-man. We hung on in 11-man probably longer than anybody our size. It came to a point where our numbers made it difficult to compete at the level we did in the 2000s,” Purvis said. “All those teams we were playing in the 2000s have dropped to 8-man. Your landscape has changed, and it’s almost led you to the point where we are what we are. We have always been a small private school, and we felt it was best for our program and our school.”

The MAIS’ two 8-man classifications had 29 teams in 2020, a total that encompasses many of the association’s smallest schools and which has more than tripled since the 8-man division was started in the late 2000s. The smallest 11-man classification has 17 teams in 2020.

PCA has not had a winning season in football since 2008. Out of the 13 MAIS teams it played that season, five have closed or left the association and five others have since switched to 8-man.

That shift in football demographics, Purvis said, has left smaller schools like Porter’s Chapel in the difficult position of having to compete against opponents with a much deeper talent pool. PCA only had about 30 boys in grades 8-11 in the last realignment cycle in 2018.

“The gap between the smallest and largest schools in an 11-man district can be 20-to-30 kids to as many as 70. The alignment (in 2016), we were almost 80 kids less,” Purvis said.

He added the difference in size between schools can make it difficult not only to win games but to survive a season once injuries set in and starters are replaced by younger, inexperienced players. PCA had 28 players on its roster this season, 11 of which were in eighth or ninth grade.

“With the lack of depth, it becomes a safety issue when you lose some of your older guys. This is a better option in terms of that,” Purvis said.

Although it will fully jump into the 8-man pool in 2021, PCA is not a stranger to it.

Because of low numbers the junior high team has played 8-man football for the past three years. The varsity has also played four 8-man games in 2019 and 2020 — ironically, because there were not enough 11-man teams in Class 3A, the lowest 11-man classification, to fill out a full, even and fair schedule.

PCA has a 13-4 record in its 8-man games the past two seasons, and its junior high team went undefeated in 2020. The varsity team finished 4-6 overall this season, with two of it wins coming in the 8-man games against Deer Creek and Claiborne Academy.

“We’ve been 13-4 in our 8-man games the last two years between the junior high and high school. That presents a valid argument for the size of our school and who we’re a better fit to be competitive with,” Purvis said.

Purvis added that having seen and prepared for so many 8-man games also gave him a bit of an epiphany after years of being sour toward it.

Unlike its early days, when high scores and offensive shootouts were the norm, the 8-man division has settled into a more normal rhythm. There have only been 14 games this season in the MAIS’ two 8-man classifications in which the winning team scored more than 60 points, and most of those were lopsided blowouts more attributable to differences in talent rather than a lack of defense.

“Eight-man is still football. You still have to block, you still have to tackle, you still have to execute. With low numbers, you have a better chance to execute,” Purvis said. “People are learning how to play it. You are seeing football games. You’re not seeing as many track meets as you did in the early days.”

The Eagles’ success in 8-man football gave Purvis an optimistic outlook on how the transition will go in 2021. Unlike some other teams that have made the switch and had to adjust to new rules and style of play, they should be able to hit the ground running with a host of players familiar with the differences.

“Our freshman class that will be sophomores, that’s all they have played in junior high. They obviously will have a better feel for it. And playing those 8-man games in high school will give us a starting point and something to build off of with the older guys,” Purvis said. “I’m looking forward to next year. Coming off an undefeated junior high season, and with our track record in 8-man, I’m looking forward to the group we have and the potential for success that they have, and being able to compete at an extremely high level.”

PCA’s move to 8-man will be for at least the 2021 and 2022 seasons. The MAIS realigns its classifications every two years, and the next one is in its final phases. The MAIS is expected to release its classifications and district alignment in November.

Purvis noted that some teams have switched back to 11-man football after spending time in the 8-man division, and did not rule out a return if PCA’s enrollment increases or the make-up of the smaller 11-man classifications changes. For now, however, he believes going to 8-man is good for the program.

“I believe we made a great effort to continue to play 11-man, but the landscape of the MAIS changed,” Purvis said. “Change is always hard. There are always people that are going to be resistant. There are pros and cons to 8-man and 11-man. Talking to (Head of School Chris Williams), and our coaches, and our lead team, we found more pros than cons with 8-man. We believe we made, for the next two years, the best decision for our football program, our school and our kids.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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