HELENA – Montana’s 8-Man high school football teams are on the front side of history.
An overwhelming majority of member schools voted in favor of playing future 8-Man state championship games at neutral sites, becoming the first classification in Montana high school football to do so. The Montana High School Association’s executive board approved the move with a 6-1 vote on Monday.
Of the 41 schools to respond to the MHSA survey, 30 voted in favor of the neutral-site championship.
“I’m in shock right now that the schools voted 70 percent to approve that,” said Ennis athletic director Paul Bills, one of the state’s biggest proponents of a neutral-site championship. “I think it’s an absolute wonderful thing. With the board approving it, putting it in Butte the first year, Billings the following year, I think it’s just going to be great for 8-Man football and great for those communities.”
The first neutral-site 8-Man state championship will be played at Butte’s historic Naranche Stadium on Nov. 17, 2018 at 1 p.m. An 80-yard field will be marked off with tape, portable goal posts will be placed at the goal lines, and the spaces between the 10-yard lines and goal lines will serve as end zones.
The championships will rotate between Butte and the Billings area, so the 2019 title game will be played in Yellowstone County. Rocky Mountain College, Daylis Stadium and the Laurel Sports Complex all have artificial turf fields, which will likely be one of the criteria considered when determining host sites.
Until now, all of Montana’s state football championships have been played at home sites with few exceptions. The 2017 8-Man championship was played at Philipsburg, where Flint Creek (the Drummond-Philipsburg co-op) defeated Forsyth 44-30. Dinny Bennett, the Forsyth superintendent set to take a seat on the MHSA executive board in the coming days, expressed concern over removing the home-field advantage from the championship. Luke Kloker, the Fairview superintendent and Class C representative on the MHSA executive board, iterated the importance of including Billings in the rotation to appease the 8-Man East.
“I understand hosting a state football championship, I’ve done it, it’s a great thing, it’s a wonderful thing for the community,” Bills said. “But, overall, I think people want to be able to see it in a neutral site where more people can attend. Nothing against the schools in the East or in the West, but if you’re in Plentywood or if you’re in Superior, people don’t have to travel 600, 700 miles to go watch a game (at a neutral site). Putting it in the central part of the state is going to give more people access to watch an 8-Man football game.”
Butte provides the 8-Man classification a strong foothold for the inaugural neutral-site championship. The annual Bob Cleverly 8-Man All-Star game is played at Montana Tech, and Bills is orchestrating an 8-Man showcase to kick off the 2018 season at Naranche Stadium.
Bills, like many other football fans across the state, hopes this is just the first step in neutral-site championships. As of now, no other classifications are set to play neutral-site championship games despite numerous proposals over the years.
“If we’re successful, I would be hard-pressed to believe that Class B or 6-player football wouldn’t jump on this, if it’s successful, and have all three of them at one place,” Bills said. “It’s got to start somewhere, and (Monday) it starts with us.”
The board approved another 8-Man change on Monday, albeit this one for just 2018. The fifth seed from the 8-Man North will replace the fourth seed from the 8-Man South in the state playoffs, meaning just three teams from the South will qualify for the postseason. The swap of teams was approved in response to the imbalanced North and South divisions: The North will field 13 teams in 2018 compared to just eight for the South.