On the afternoon of August 31, New Home School football players had just rallied to edge out the cheerleaders in a team hula-hoop competition when junior Riley Stokes—dressed as a leopard—grabbed a cordless microphone. It was the first pep rally of the 2018 season, and the crowd of students, teachers, and families didn’t need much coaxing to cheer. “The Leopards are starting a new season!” Stokes yelled, bending her knees and waving her free arm with a mascot’s trademark excitement. “And now, they’re playing eleven-man football!” The gym burst into cheers.
A few hours later, New Home sent eleven Leopards onto a football field for the first time since 1982. For more than three decades, the town of a little more than 350—located about 20 miles south of Lubbock—has been represented by a six-man football team, the University Interscholastic League’s special concession to its smallest schools.
The current minimum enrollment to qualify for UIL eleven-man play is 104.9 high school students, and New Home stood at 93 when the bi-annual state reclassification took place last February. But as Lubbock’s population balloons and families move out of the city for more elbow room, the New Home school system has grown. It’s on pace to outgrow UIL’s smallest enrollment category, Class 1A, likely by the next reclassification in 2020. So according to Athletic Director Koby Abney, the administration decided last fall “to turn the inevitable into the immediate” and go eleven-man beginning in 2018. Eighteen other UIL schools joined New Home in “playing up” to Class 2A, but 137 others will play six-man the next two academic years.
Hundreds of miles away from New Home, down in a picturesque southwest corner of the Hill Country, the town of Leakey (pronounced LAY-key) isn’t growing. The Frio River flows down the town’s east side and attracts visitors in the summer who enjoy rafting, tubing, and vacation properties. But Mayor Harry Schneemann, who played football for Leakey in the early 1960s, noted the lack of a true industry in the 410-person town. “There’s no reason to move here, especially if you have a student playing sports,” he said. “But as long as there’s a river, there will be a Leakey.”
Road signs leading into Leakey boast that the Eagles were state football champions in 1975, the final year of the UIL’s eight-man division. Despite qualifying for six-man football, Leakey has played eleven-man ever since. It hasn’t treated them well. They’ve produced few winning seasons—only one in the past twenty years. Donnie Dutton, who served as the school’s athletic director for the past four years, said Leakey’s motivation for playing up for so long was primarily convenience—there was a dearth of six-man opponents located within a reasonable distance, which meant away games could be hard to navigate.
But neighboring rivals Medina and Nueces Canyon made the switch to six-man in recent years. And the 2017 Eagles were barely able to field an eleven-man team en route to a 1-9 finish. After taking those two factors into account, the school board overwhelmingly voted to reclassify as a six-man team last fall.
But Leakey had homework to do before taking the field. Six-man is played on a smaller field (80-by-40 yards instead of 100-by-50), requires fifteen yards for a first down instead of ten, allows all offensive players to catch a pass, and requires an additional exchange of the ball following the snap from center for an offensive player to run past the line of scrimmage. Following a touchdown, a run or pass is worth one point, and a kick is worth two. A six-man game typically features much more scoring. Because some games become hopelessly lopsided, the UIL employs a mercy rule to end play when a team leads by at least forty-five points during the second half (“getting 45’d,” in six-man parlance).
Last winter, Leakey hired Shannon Williams, a football coach with a strong background in six-man play. Williams coached for five seasons at Zephyr, near Brownwood, leading them to the state semifinals in 2015. The coach saw an opportunity to make an impact on the six-man newcomers. “The coolest part about that job is you’re starting from the ground up, there’s not a six-man foundation at all there,” Williams told the Brownwood Bulletin after accepting the coaching job. “There’s a lot of kids, a lot of hungry kids. Everything that will be taught to them will be my program, so that’s all they will know about six-man. You’re not going into a town that will press for spread offense or tight, anything like that. Everything is new and they’re eager for it.”