When comparing 9-man and 11-man football, the differences are numerous.
This is why, oftentimes, programs go through an adjustment phase after transitioning from one to the other, particularly when moving up the class ladder.
In 2021, nine programs — Baltic, Clark/Willow Lake, Dakota Hills, Deuel, Hill City, Jim River, Parker, Rapid City Christian and Tripp-Delmont/Armour/Andes Central/Dakota Christian — were new to Class 11B football. Additionally, Lakota Tech, a program in its first year of existence, slotted into Class 11A.
While some programs to make the jump in recent years have proven to be an exception to the rule — look no further than Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan, which won the Class 11B title in 2019 and has an active streak of four straight appearances in the state championship game since moving up in 2015 — many 11-man football newcomers experience struggles early on in their new environment.
Of the Class 11B newcomers, just two finished in top 16 and qualified for the postseason in a class of 29 schools. Deuel (5-3) and Clark/Willow Lake (4-4) slotted in at seeds No. 15 and 16, respectively, as the remaining seven schools combined to go 13-43.
Coaches Brett Eckert (Hill City), Dustin Hourigan (Deuel) and Zach Noffsinger (Dakota Hills) cited challenges ranging from roster depth and injuries to adapting to the differences in offensive and defensive schemes between 9-man and 11-man and preparing to play an unfamiliar pool of programs.
“It was good for the kids to see that it is still football,” Eckert said. “There are differences, but it is still the same game.”
Though obstacles are many, realities can differ greatly from program to program. Take Deuel and Hill City, for example. Hourigan’s Cardinals had 41 players on the roster this season, while Eckert’s Rangers had just 19. A flurry of early-season injuries even forced Hill City to forfeit a game due to having only 10 available athletes.
“Numbers are always a challenge in football,” Eckert said. “One or two guys go down and then you are having to put guys in different positions where they are not as comfortable and it shows.”
Though Eckert is optimistic numbers are a short-term issue, there’s no question Deuel’s greater numbers afforded them an opportunity to get more reps for second-string players who’ll slide into starting roles down the road. Situations like this underscore the varying distances teams have to cover to make up ground on the more established 11-man programs.
Even though 2021 was a one-year reclassification cycle, Eckert, Hourigan and Noffsinger expect 11-man football to become the new long-term reality for many programs, including their own, meaning coaches and players alike must continue to adjust and work to establish themselves.
Noffsinger offered a sentiment likely felt by most new 11-man coaches: “I expect us to embrace being 11-man, improve our numbers and be more competitive moving forward.”