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KSHSAA to add 6-man state football championship
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Six-player football to become KSHSAA-sanctioned championship
By Rickie Peterson Jr., KSHSAA Covered

Chris Walden firmly believes six-player football has helped changed the athletic culture at Cheylin High School.

A stranger to the level when he took over as Cheylin coach in 2016, Walden has watched the Bird City-Cheylin community fully embrace the six-player game.

Not only did it give the Cougars a chance to compete on a consistent basis, but Cheylin eventually rose to the top, winning the Wild West Bowl last year to become recognized as six-player state champs.

It was Cheylin's first state championship of any kind since Bird City and McDonald consolidated in 1976.

"The culture that it brought to the school and the community was something like, 'We're finally at a level where we belong and we're finally at a level where we can compete consistently,' " Walden said. "It's been really good for our school, for our community in terms of pride. It's not that they didn't have something to be proud of before with our other football teams, but we could say that we were the best at our level in something for once.

"And that was a big deal."

So was the news Walden and Kansas' six-player football community received Wednesday evening.

Six-player football will become sanctioned by the Kansas State High School Activities Association starting in 2022. The sport was approved for championship status next year following a 68-0 vote by the KSHSAA Board of Directors in Wednesday's meeting.

Holding a KSHSAA championship for six-player will be contingent on fielding 24 teams. There are currently 15 teams participating at the level. It's unclear how many teams will participate next year, but at least 24 teams are believed to be planning to play at the six-player level. 

Amendments made to the agenda item included adjusting Class 3A football to 40 schools, Class 2A to 40 schools and Class 1A to the remaining 11-player playing schools beginning in the 2022 season.

Walden said becoming an official KSHSAA State Championship further legitimizes the work done by the six-player football community. He hopes teams struggling to fill out rosters will consider making the move to the six-player level. 

"I think there are a handful of schools out there who have probably wanted to or needed to make a jump down to six-man rather than stay in eight-man, due to numbers," Walden said. "But they're on the fence or they're scared to come down just due to us not being a sanctioned KSHSAA activity.

"(KSHSAA sanctioning the championship will) legitimize it and make it a real thing in the eyes of everyone else in the state of Kansas, not just a select group of schools who do their own thing every year. I think it will really, really help continue to make the growth of six-man happen."

Moscow coach Bret Harp agreed.

"With declining numbers in our small schools, I only see the six-man game becoming a more prominent athletic event in our state, as it has been in other states for many years," said Harp, whose Wildcats were the Wild West Bowl champs in 2019 and were runner-up last year. "I think six-man football is needed for the schools that can't field an 8-man or 11-man team."

"Football is football, and those of us who love the game want an opportunity to play."

Cheylin made the move to the six-player level in 2016 after going a combined 1-17 over the previous two years in the eight-player ranks. Walden said the Cougars' struggles were due to low numbers that made it difficult to compete in eight-player. 

"Every school has some kids that are athletic," he said. "Every school has kids that are good at football, good at sports in general. (Six-player) allows you to take more advantage of those kids that are really physically able to perform at a high level.

"If you've got nine kids on an eight-man team, one gets hurt or one is ineligible, it really puts the whole season or the whole week in jeopardy. (Six-player) makes teams able to compete at a high level again."

Walden said dropping down to six-player football injected a new energy into the program.

"For some schools that struggle at the eight-man level, it can bring a new breath of life into the school and into the school district," he said. "It gets your kids excited about being able to compete against teams that are similar size or have similar enrollment numbers or have a similar number of kids out for football."

A Bird City native and Cheylin grad, Walden said he initially tried to implement the power-run type of offense he grew up with. After 21/2 years, the Cougars phased out that style and rely on a spread attack that is more popular in six-player football.

The high-scoring reputation of the six-player game in states such as Colorado, Texas and Nebraska has held true for the game in Kansas.

In six-player football, the quarterback cannot run the ball past the line of scrimmage, though teams can get around it by having a running back pitch the ball back to the quarterback. Every player is also eligible to catch a pass.

"It is hard for schools that immediately come down," Walden said. "You're going to have to probably change the way you think about football in terms of offense and defense. Defense is probably the hardest part out of everything in six-man."

Cheylin went 3-6 in its first season of six-player football, followed by 6-3 and 4-4 campaigns. The Cougars enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2019, going 9-1 and reaching the Wild West Bowl in Dodge City before falling to Moscow, 52-6.

The Cougars avenged the title-game loss, capping a 9-0 season with a 46-0 win over the Wildcats in last year's Wild West Bowl.

"In terms of the football team and the football program, all the way from high school to elementary, we've got kids that are wanting to play and participate now just because they want to have a chance to go down and do that again," Walden said. "It's a pride thing. You've done it once, you've been there once, you've tasted it, you know what it looks like. Now everybody wants a piece of it."

While the championship was a huge deal for the Bird City community, Walden said he felt there were some in the surrounding area who downplayed the championship because six-player football was not yet a KSHSAA-sanctioned championship.

"There was still some people in the area, that criticized it because: 'Well, it wasn't a KSHSAA state championship, there's only 15 teams that play in it. You don't really have to beat that many teams to get there,' " Walden said. 

"But I feel like (it becoming sanctioned) really legitimizes (the championship). Someone, whether it's us or someone else, in the coming year will be a KSHSAA six-man state champion. That provides a lot more validity. Critics can't say, 'It's not a KSHSAA deal, it doesn't count.'"

Cheylin helped set a precedent for moving a player from the six-player ranks onto the next level. Colton McCarty, a star on last year's unbeaten team, now plays at Bethel College.

Walden said some college coaches were initially unsure how to evaluate McCarty because they were unfamiliar with six-player football. Becoming a KSHSAA sanctioned sport should raise the exposure for the level, he said.

"We will have more teams and there will be more film out there of kids that will be able to be evaluated, able to be recruited, which will help colleges be able to narrow down on some kids that are good enough football players, good enough student-athletes to go and play at the next level," Walden said. "Colton, no doubt, was one of the better six-man players that has come out of the state in the last six years.

"But there have been several others that, in my opinion, could have very easily played at the NAIA level, Division II level, juco level. They just kind of got looked over because we were the low-man on the totem pole in terms or recruiting."

Another benefit of being KSHSAAA sanctioned will be the ability to play a full postseason schedule.

"Right now, we have to have our playoffs, state championship and everything done by week nine of the regular KSHSAA football season," Walden said.

He noted that six-player football teams aren't trying to poach teams from the eight-player level.

"We're not going out and actively recruiting schools to come to six-man. We want schools to do it just to give their kids the opportunity to play," Walden said.

Six-player football resurfaced in Kansas in 2014 with Weskan being one of the first schools to participate since 2003. The Wild West Bowl was established in 2016.

schools currently participating in six-player football this year include Ashland, Burrton, Cunningham, Deerfield, Fowler, Golden Plains, Greeley County, Natoma, Northern Valley, Pawnee Heights, Rolla, Western Plains and Weskan. Western Plains did not field a team last year and is playing a JV schedule this season.

"it's a growing thing with rural Kansas, small-town Kansas," Walden said. "There's becoming less and less people in those communities and it's hard to continue to field an eight-man team when you only have 10, 11, 12 kids out.

"(With approval by KSHSAA), I feel like it will grow quite a bit more faster than it has been in the last couple years."