WINTER HAVEN — There are three fewer players on each side of the ball, the field is (sometimes) a little smaller and many of the players don’t have a ton of prior experience.
The important thing for the campus community of Oasis Christian Academy, though, is that high school football is back.
Oasis Christian in Winter Haven, without a team for more than five years, is back — this time playing eight-man football through the Sunshine State Athletic Conference’s VICIS 8-Man Premier League. The SSAC is a growing, independent league operating in collaboration with the FHSAA, which governs high school sports in Florida.
And while there’s a bit of a learning curve for the rebooted program, head coach Chad Moore — an alum of the school from when it was known as Haven Christian Academy — says excitement abounds the campus community of roughly 350 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It's a humongous deal for us,” Moore, who was the line coach at All Saints Academy last fall, explained. “A lot of the (faculty) that have been here long enough to remember the last time the school had a team, they've expressed to me that it kind of felt like something died when the last program was cut. So, there's a revitalization of that school spirit that it seems like football brings to schools.”
Eight-man football is the latest endeavor of the SSAC, adding to its other football offerings — a two-tier 11-man league and a middle school league. Including the 14-team eight-man league, which is new this fall, there are 76 teams total competing for different SSAC championships.
For SSAC President Stuart Weiss, who is also the head coach at nearby All Saints Academy, the organization’s decision to take up eight-man football was based on feedback from its members.
“The motivation was, since I’ve been president, we’ve lost between 12 and 15 schools that, numbers-wise, couldn’t participate in 11-man football anymore,” Weiss explained. “Fielding an 11-man team competitively wasn’t an option. We had been looking at eight-man football for some time and we thought it would be feasible.”
The game is more similar than one might expect. Teams remove two linemen and one skillplayer on each side of the ball. The field can either be a standard 100x50 yards, or teams have the option of playing on a smaller 80x40 yard field, which was the decision of Oasis Christian as it allowed the Lions to compete on-campus.
Other changes include the elimination of kickoffs, which could lead to injuries on already-thin rosters, and a change in yardage for penalties when games are played on the smaller field.
“You’re not changing the design of what people run on offense or defense,” Weiss explained. “Scores tend to be higher, especially if you’re playing on a regulation field because that leaves more open area.”
There are added challenges for a program like Oasis Christian, too. Of the 17-player roster Moore has this fall, he acknowledges several of those players have little-to-no experience with tackle football.
Still, during a jamboree Aug. 23, he says the first-time players more than held their own.
“They did fantastic on offense,” Moore said. “Defense was a little bit of a reality check of what football is all about. A lot of them got their jitters out.”
Moore and his staff will spend more time than a coaching staff at a larger program working on the fundamentals with their team, but the tradeoff is worth it. Moore and Weiss both expressed belief that high school football can be an important part of a teenager’s development into an adult.
“One of the biggest things, I would say, is character-building,” Moore said. “One of the big things I've heard from teachers and colleagues at the schools is that the kids have a chance to develop character.”
Oasis Christian hosted its first full-length football game August 30 against Real Life Christian Academy, after the time of press. The Lions have a pair of road games Sept. 6 and Sept. 13 and return home Sept. 20 to host St. Petersburg’s Canterbury Crusaders.
One thing Moore expressed particular optimism about with is the way the SSAC strives to create parity, saying he felt like his program is on relatively equal footing to the other 13 programs comprising the first-year league.
Parity seems to be a calling card of the SSAC which, in its 11-man league that is more than a decade old, has had nearly as many respective champions as it has had seasons.
“We’ve had 11 champions and only one (team) repeat — that’s unheard of,” Weiss said.
For more information on the SSAC, visit https://www.sunshinestateathletics.com.