New Coach, New Format: Time for Memorial Day School to Tackle Eight-Man Football

By Nathan Dominitz for the Prep Sports Reportn | June 11, 2024

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Zane Rowland, Memorial Day School’s first-year head football coach, is eager to get started with summer workouts for his players and seemingly can’t wait for the season to start.

The future of the Matadors football program, though, is tied to its recent past. Specifically, small enrollment numbers and player safety concerns led the private school in Savannah to transition from the standard 11-on-11 football format to an eight-man division for 2024 and 2025 in the Georgia Independent Athletic Association.

Rowland, who came on board in March, said it’s his understanding that the 2023 roster listed 21 players, but through attrition was 14 or 15 by the end of the season.

“Realistically, they should have been at eight-man last year simply to preserve their guys,” Rowland said in a recent interview, noting that 11 senior football players graduated this spring. “If you have one or two guys get hurt, you only have three or four on the sidelines, you’re in a really hard position. You have those guys playing both ways the entire game without a sub, it’s not good for the kids.”

He said it’s his job as the head coach to protect his players.

“I believe 100 percent in going to the transition to eight-man,” he said. “Would I love to be coaching 11-man? Absolutely, because that’s what I know. But I’m not afraid to step into something new and I’m excited for the challenge.”

Rowland’s experience is coaching 11-on-11, as the graduate of Lowndes High School in Valdosta has since 2015 worked his way up from volunteer coaching in youth recreation leagues to middle school and, since 2021, high school varsity programs. He was offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach in his lone season at Savannah High in 2023, and said he was prepared to be an assistant coach at Liberty County High when he learned about the opening at Memorial Day School.

He wanted to see if he was ready to be a head coach. Rowland acknowledges others, including coaches, have been “naysayers” with negative comments about eight-man football as “not real football,” but he doesn’t agree.

“Just because something’s new doesn’t make it not real,” Rowland said. “It’s just different. You just have to have your mind open to it. Fortunately for me, my mind is open. I believe in what we’re going to do this year and I’m excited about it.”

He may be short on players but not enthusiasm, a quality that got the attention of Andrea Bagnall, who was hired at Memorial Day School as athletic director and athletic trainer in February.

“You want a young, energetic guy,” Bagnall said. “It’s new for him, also.”

Bagnall noted the popularity of eight-man football in states with sparsely populated areas such as Arizona, where she worked as the director of sports medicine at Eastern Arizona College. 

She has been a certified athletic trainer for 40 years with vast experience working with high school, college, professional and Olympic sports programs. She and her husband retired to Savannah before she wanted to be busier and came to Memorial Day.

Bagnall looks at eight-man football as a sensible, feasible option for small schools like Memorial Day, which she said has 182 students from K-12. The Class of 2024 was 26 seniors, including 21 males who played a lot of sports. She estimated that there may be about 40 boys in grades 9-12 eligible for football.

From her perspective as an athletic trainer, eight-man is an explosive, entertaining version of the sport that favors speed and skill position players over a grinding, “ground-and-pound game” played by 22 players on the gridiron.

There are fewer concussions and contact injuries, though what she calls change-of-direction injuries such as ankle sprains and ACL tears will still happen. The field is narrower at 40 yards wide (instead of 53.3 yards) and prescribed under the rules as 80 yards long --- though Rowland said the majority of programs he has examined have 100-yard fields and keep the goal posts in place.

Having three fewer players on a side makes a big difference on the depth chart and in avoiding iron-man situations in which players almost never leave the field. Bagnall said that fatigue is a documented factor with injuries.

“There’s always going to be pushback because football is king; we all know that,” Bagnall said of the transition. “But the biggest thing to me is for the safety of our players, our student-athletes. You have to take that into consideration. We don’t have the numbers to do 11-man football and do it safely. Last year kind of showed them that because people played hurt. It was a big deal because you don’t want to forfeit games or not play, but at the same time it is a collision sport with 11-man. You just know there’s going to be injuries.”

She called it a “very easy” decision for Memorial Day School, which wanted to continue a football program which had been extremely competitive with six state championships in 11-man in GISA/GIAA. Even the 2023 squad, despite the small roster, went 5-7 under then-head coach Jaha Taylor and reached the GIAA Class A semifinals.

Kids can still compete and have fun, but in a safer way, she said.

The transition is eased because finding opponents isn’t an issue, with 16 more schools in the state going to eight-man next year, Bagnall said.

Rowland doesn’t know how many players will suit up this Aug. 16 for the season opener at Citizens Christian Academy in Douglas. The Rowland family is doing its part with two of Zane and Tricia’s four children playing football. Their oldest son, Jr (pronounced “Junior”), is a rising freshman quarterback versatile enough to play receiver and other positions. Their son Zayden is a rising fifth-grader who will play on Memorial’s middle school team.

Their other children, son Jaxon, 2, and daughter Kynleigh, 9 months, are not in the football picture at this time.

Rowland said that offensive and defensive schemes in eight-man are basically the same as in 11-man. On offense, he probably will go without two tackles and a skill position player.

“It’s honestly the same game,” the coach said. “It’s supposed to be a faster-paced, higher-scoring offensive-type game, which is fine by me because I’m an offensive guy. I like touchdowns. I think we’ll be fine.”



All games 7:30 p.m. unless indicated

Aug. 16 – at Citizens Christian

Aug. 23 – vs. Georgia Christian

Aug. 30 – at Grace Christian

Sept. 6 – vs. Westwood, 7 p.m.

Sept. 13 – at Sherwood Christian

Sept. 20 – vs. Fullington Academy

Oct. 4 – at Crisp Academy

Oct. 18 – vs. Vidalia Heritage Academy

Oct. 23 – at David Emanuel Academy


PHOTO CREDIT: Prep Sports Report, Memorial Daty School

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