With low numbers that forced it to cancel its season two years ago and field just a junior varsity team in 2014, the Bellarmine-Jefferson High football program was faced with a dilemma.
The school's administration was left with just two viable options as it saw it: quit or adapt. It chose the latter.
In an attempt to save the school's football program, Bell-Jeff has decided to drop down to play eight-man football this season.
"That was the whole idea of switching to eight-man, so we can keep the long tradition of football alive at Bellarmine-Jefferson," said coach Fred Martinez, who is in his second year and also serves as the school's athletic director. "I think when you look at the big picture, this was the best option and I think the best way to go for our program and for the school."
In the basic eight-man game, rules require that five men have to be on the line of scrimmage. On offense, the loss of three players usually comes in the form of two linemen and a backfield player or wide receiver. On defense, typically teams go without two linemen and one linebacker or lose one lineman and two defensive backs. In addition, because eight-man squads usually consist of small numbers and players play multiple positions, the normal uniform numbering restrictions do not apply.
"Eight-man football is a speed game. Think of arena football and put it outdoors," Martinez said. "All the tape I've looked at and all the information that I've gathered about eight-man football is that it's not about the physicality of the game, but instead it's more of a finesse game. ...It's like a flag football field played with pads."
The program at Bell-Jeff has endured its share of struggles the past two seasons. In 2014, because of low numbers, the Guards were only able to field a junior varsity team. In five games, Bell-Jeff went 0-5.
The administration canceled the final three games of the 2013 season also because of dwindling numbers. The Guards finished the year at 0-7 with four forfeit losses and three on the field. In the three games Bell-Jeff did play, the Guards suffered mounting injuries to an already slim squad.
"We are really hoping that we've turned a corner with our program and going to eight-man football is going to be a positive thing," Martinez said. "A lot of schools that previously played 11-man have made the switch to eight-man, as well. We are a small school and, for now, I think this type of football suits us a lot better."
Bell-Jeff will be a freelance squad this season, therefore it will not be in a league. The program will compete in the Eight Man CIF Southern Section Division II and has eight games on the schedule.
The Guards open their season Friday with a game on the road against Crossroads Christian in Corona. Bell-Jeff has its home opener Sept 12 against Westmark at Burroughs High's Memorial Field. The team will also play at Ribet Academy on Sept. 18, at La Verne Lutheran on Oct. 3, travel to Lone Pine on Oct. 10, host Fulton Prep on Oct. 17, travel to Viewpoint on Oct. 24 and finish the regular season at Chadwick on Oct. 31.
"We have about 15 players right now," Martinez said. "We did lose some good players who transferred out. We really have no superstars and I call this a neighborhood team right now. But the kids are really working hard and they are working together. They are really not relying on one or two players to carry the team.
"They have really adapted to the concept of eight-man football and really what we have to do to be successful. We have gone slow at the start with the fundamentals and we will pick up the speed later. I want to go 100 miles an hour, but until we know exactly where we're going we just can't go that fast yet."
Martinez said at this point in the preseason, he has a core of players who he is looking at to lead the team. Among those players are senior quarterback/defensive back David Van Dyke, senior running back/defensive back Christian Posis, sophomore lineman Noah Godoy, senior lineman Brandon Jimenez and sophomore linebacker Micah Gonzalez.
"We're not going to do too much different in terms of our offensive game plan than we did when we played 11-man," said Martinez, whose players have received new state-of-the-art SG Helmets made of carbon fiber and Kevlar. "What we will run will be a different type of option attack. We will run a spread-type of offense, but a lot of our 11-man schemes we will use in our eight-man game, we just eliminated certain players. Although we have small numbers, we are going to have most of our linemen who are just going to go one way.
"We're getting it down. I think our team, and just the whole eight-man football game, is going to be a lot of fun to watch."