In a twist, the school will play eight-on-eight football in the SSAC instead of 11-on-11 out of concern for offensive linemen depth.
The players practiced hard.
They took water breaks. They broke down all the equipment together, then went into the locker room for a recap of the day's work and a look ahead at the next day's work.
In other words, the Sarasota Christian School football team prepared like a real football team.
It all came together within a matter of months during the 2021-2022 school year, planning for a launch this fall. And indeed that launch will happen — even if the inaugural season at Sarasota Christian is not going to look exactly how Head Coach Jacob Spenn initially envisioned.
Instead of jumping into 11-on-11 football in year one, the Blazers decided after spring practices that they will play eight-on-eight football in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference. The reason? Spenn was worried about his offensive and defensive linemen depth. The Blazers have a solid group of about seven players who can play on the line, Spenn said, but he did not want to risk forfeiting games because the team didn't have enough linemen if a few of them were to suffer injuries.
The eight-on-eight game eliminates two offensive linemen positions, leaving a center and a right and left guard. Otherwise, the game is similar to the 11-on-11 game everyone knows. Five offensive players have to be on the line of scrimmage at the start of the play, though two of them — receivers — are eligible to catch passes. Teams can elect to run or pass like normal. If anything, Spenn said, going to eight-on-eight football for year one could bring more exciting play.
"I talked to different coaches about this and they all said it plays like real football," Spenn said. "It's got some challenges, you know, like how we rework these plays to fit these rules. But some concepts actually may work better. I think the game is going to play faster. With two less linemen, players can get to the edge faster. In the past I have never run a lot of speed option concepts because you have to be really committed to it for it to work (in 11-man football), but in eight-man, the edge is right there. It's a different feel, so you can use it."
No matter the style of football the Blazers were going to play, the 2022 season was always going to be about helping the Blazers learn the game. Many athletes on the team, like rising sophomore Trey Featherston, had never played football before the program's spring practices in May. Featherston said his experience playing basketball convinced him to try out for the football team now that it was an option.
"I'm a center in basketball and I foul a lot," Featherston said with a laugh. "I was ready for the contact."
Featherston has been playing defensive end for the Blazers through the spring and early fall practices. He said he feels much more comfortable on the field now than he did in May, both in terms of physical actions and the mental side of the game, knowing where he's supposed to end up on a given play. Featherston said the Blazers are beginning to feel like a real team even though they have yet to play a game.
"It is encouraging to know that we are building a foundation here," Featherston said. "Hopefully years down the line, after I graduate, I can come back for Friday night football and see the lights and the stadium packed. It's exciting."
Of course, the Blazers still have to deal with the challenges any football program in Florida faces, like the weather. The program's Aug. 2 practice was ended early because of storms in the area. Thankfully, the team was able to get in a lot of its work anyway. Spenn said one of the benefits of having a smaller roster — the Blazers have approximately 20 athletes — is that each individual gets more reps. Spenn said he estimates that the Blazers can get done in 90 minutes what a full-sized team of his could get done in two hours, a big advantage when so many of his players have so much to learn.
The Blazers program will only get bigger from here. Spenn said that the Blazers' middle school flag football team has 37 sign-ups as of Aug. 2, with 18 of those being eighth graders. The expectation is that most if not all of those 18 will join the high school tackle football program next year. Spenn reiterated that the goal of the program is to be a full-fledged 11-on-11 program eventually, and if all those kids join the program, it might have to be next year no matter what: combining those kids with the team's projected returnees put the team's varsity roster at approximately 35, which is too large per eight-on-eight rules.
Spenn said he's not thinking about that right now. Instead he's focused on helping his players develop as much as they can this fall, not only as football players but as human beings.
Of course, he and the Blazers would like to win a few games, too.
"My expectation is that we're going to win until that is proven otherwise," Spenn said. "We're going to bring a commitment, a toughness. I was really encouraged by the effort we showed in the spring. I think this group is going to be fun to watch."
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