Gielcyk: Forest Area Makes a Difficult Decision
Really, there was no other choice for Forest Area than to cancel the remainder of its varsity football season and hope that things improve by next year.
The safety of the players must come first, and with the roster down to just 11 players … with only a couple of upperclassmen … it was putting everyone at risk to continue.
“We were kind of flirting with that number from the get-go,” Warriors head coach and athletic director Brian Mumby said. “At the beginning of the season we were flirting with low numbers, but we thought we had enough and could make it work.”
But, after playing their first two games (going 1-1) the Warriors’ numbers diminished even further when a couple of players decided to leave the program.
Football, they felt, just wasn’t for them. Both had some other commitments. Mumby didn’t fault them for it. He understands that there are several things tugging at the athletes’ time.
However, matters were getting grim.
Another player was already sidelined for a couple of weeks, which brought the Warriors’ number of healthy athletes to put on the field down to just 11. In 8-man football, that might seem adequate.
“It’s not safe. It just isn’t,” Mumby said. “If somebody gets hurt, or somebody is ineligible, or somebody misses a practice and can’t play, or somebody misses school … then that puts us down sub-wise. We’ve got kids going both ways, playing every play. It’s hard.”
When Mumby arrived in Fife Lake six years ago, the Warriors were playing 11-man and he had 12 on the roster his first season as the coach. That number increased to 14, and there were a couple years where the Warriors had some great success and they had enough numbers to field a varsity and junior varsity.
It was thought those numbers would continue to be consistent.
But, the numbers just haven’t been there in recent years, which is the reason Forest Area opted to go to 8-man football and at least keep the sport alive. Despite making the playoffs a year ago, Forest Area continues to struggle with numbers.
Forest Area does have 15 kids on the middle school team (12 to 13 on the YMCA Pop Warner team), and five of those are eighth graders. If all of them come out next year, Mumby is looking at an influx of five freshmen on the varsity.
“With the group that we’ve got coming back at the high school level, that hopefully will give us enough kids next year,” added Mumby. “That’s the plan.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘recruit,’ but we’ve to get out and walk our halls, and we’ve got to knock on doors, and we’ve got to do some calling. We did all of those things this summer, too.
“I sent out letters, I called people, I messaged people, I went to their houses. We’re doing everything we can to get kids to play. It’s just one of those things. Football is a very physical sport.”
Let’s face it, football is a collision sport. Not just contact. Mumby says it takes a special person to be able to play football, and the coaches have to find those kids who want to play to get the program back on track.
From third to eighth grade, the Warriors have roughly five kids per grade playing. Mumby would like to see that increase to seven per grade level, that’s 14 per grade level. It would give Forest Area the numbers, if they all came out for football in high school, to have a junior varsity and varsity team.
That’s the coach’s mission going forward, to find those extra couple kids per grade level to play football.
“We have to find those kids and figure out what it’s going to take to make them want to play,” Mumby said. “I feel we have a very solid program. You can ask anyone around the 8-man community.
“Our program is pretty respected. Our kids play tough. They’re physical, and they get after it.”
Mumby added that since he’s been there the last six years Forest Area has upgraded its football equipment.
It has top of the line, the Riddle flex helmets and the newest shoulder pads. The school has also upgraded its blocking sleds, and the blocking pads that the team uses.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association has set limits on the time used for full contact practices, and Forest Area has scaled back its practices according to Mumby.
“We use practice pads, and a lot of stuff in our blocking. We use barrels,” said Mumby. “Even our tackling. We’re using the new tackling wheels that people have.
“We’re not just lining up and saying ‘Go hit somebody,’ like they did in the old days. We don’t do that. Maybe we have to do a better job of letting our community those are the things that go on in practice, so they can get out there and see. We have to do a better job of marketing our program.”
Forest Area’s football team will be back in the Ski Valley Conference next year with six out of the nine league schools are 8-man football now, which will pit the Warriors against some opponents they haven’t competed against in a long time.
It’s hoped that this was only a hiccup.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at email@example.com for story ideas.