The fall and rise of Pomfret football

The team was at a crossroads. Dwindling interest and a string of disappointing seasons had killed morale and put the program under a microscope. So much so that when the team's captain, Aidan McGannon, delivered his senior Commencement address in 2016, he began the speech this way:

"I am deeply honored by the trust placed in me to deliver this graduation speech... I don't think I can do much worse than the football team this year, so I'll be alright." Everyone chuckled, but it was far from a laughing matter. Pomfret Football, the cornerstone of the School's athletic program since 1894, was about to be eliminated.

"It looked pretty bleak," said Athletic Director Jon Sheehan. "We had two options. Cut the program, or join an eight-man league."

In recent years, the game of football has attracted a lot of attention, not all of it welcome. Concern over head injuries, the rising cost of play, and an increase in one-sport athletes have led to a steep decline in the number of kids playing football in the U.S.

At the high school level, these effects have been most acutely felt by small schools like Pomfret. Large schools like Exeter enroll as many as 1,000 students annually. In comparison, Pomfret enrolls just 350 students per year.

"We were having a hard time fielding a team," said Assistant Coach Steve Davis. "I remember one of our last eleven-man games up at Brooks. I was standing there on the sideline during warmups. Our team had eighteen, maybe twenty guys. Then I looked over at the Brooks side. They had fifty guys. Never mind competing. It was starting to become dangerous."

After the 2016 season, several NEPSAC schools began talking about forming their own eight-man league. Between 2009 and 2016, this variation on the traditional game had risen by 12 percent nationally. Thirty states had already adopted at least one eight-man football league, representing roughly 1,600 total teams. It seemed like a workable solution, but it had never been tried before in New England.

Eight-man shares the same rules, procedures, and structure as the traditional eleven-man game, but there are some key differences. Eight-man is played on a narrower field, typically 100 yards by 40 yards. Offenses usually eliminate two linemen and a fullback or tight end. Defenses tend to drop two defensive backs and a lineman. With fewer players and more room to run, the games are faster and the scores higher. An average scoring game can reach 50 points or more.

By the start of the 2017-2018 season, four pioneering prep schools had signed-on to play in the new league: Forman, Gunnery, Millbrook, and, of course, Pomfret. For whatever reason, the new format clicked: On a chilly afternoon in November, Pomfret defeated Millbrook 44-20 in the championship game, capping a perfect season. Seven wins. Zero losses. It was the School's first undefeated season since 1958, and its first championship in twenty-four years.