8-man football attracts non-public school students

Having 14 players on a high school varsity football roster would leave most high school coaches scratching their heads week after week, wondering about folding their programs.

Not so for the Cabarrus Stallions, a team made up mostly of homeschoolers and students from private schools in Cabarrus County and surrounding areas that don't offer football.

When senior fullback Andrew Jones darted 55 yards up the left sideline for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in its Aug. 27 game against the visiting Morganton Mountaineers it was obvious Cabarrus was not lacking manpower. The Stallions won 56-20.

The Stallions and the five other Christian-school teams of the Pioneer Football League play eight-man football. Teams based in the Lake Norman area, south Charlotte, Asheville, Rock Hill and Kingsport, Tenn., make up the rest of the league.

The Stallions have been around since the early to mid-2000s. Program leaders, though, suggest that the experience of being at a Stallions game - a public address system, cheerleaders, prize giveaways and a rabid fan base - is at its all-time best.

The biggest challenge for the Stallions is finding players. The league limits each team to drawing players only from a specific geographic area. The Stallions can pull players from all of Cabarrus and Rowan counties, plus parts of Mecklenburg, Davidson and Stanly counties.

Besides its 14 varsity players (ages 16-18), Cabarrus has 19 junior varsity players (ages 12-15). Of those 33 players, 15 live in Cabarrus County.

Varsity quarterback Tanner Wilhoit may travel the farthest, from Denton in Davidson County. His father, Randy, is the program's general manager, responsible for coordinating the many volunteers at home games.

It's not unusual for a Stallions player to get his first taste of football with the Cabarrus program, as senior Blake Gambrell did four seasons ago. In his first season, 2007, the junior varsity team had the bare minimum of eight players. Still, it never forfeited a game.

"The most I knew about football was playing 'Madden' on Xbox a couple times," said Gambrell of Harrisburg. "It has taught me about perseverance - when you're down, to keep playing."

Without all the same amenities that public-school teams have, the Stallions often must make do. The team practices four days a week at Covenant Classical School in Concord and plays home games on Saturday nights at Kannapolis Middle School.

The varsity and JV teams both play 10-game schedules. The top four teams from the varsity and JV divisions make the playoffs.

So far this season, the varsity Stallions are scoring at a clip that would be normal for the Arena Football League, totaling 96 points in two games. Although he wishes his team had a little more beef, coach Carl Gambrell feels good about its overall speed.

Gambrell said it's easier to light up the scoreboard in eight-man football because of the field space created by having fewer players on the field.

At the Aug. 27 game, Stallions fans had plenty to cheer about. That's partly because it was Spirit Night, sponsored by a sausage company that was giving away prizes for most team spirit at halftime. That type of festive atmosphere is what program leaders have tried to create in recent years.

Late in the JV game - a 60-26 Stallions win - sophomore defensive lineman Matthew Browning batted away a pass, and the ball fell to the turf. It was one of the highlights he couldn't wait to boast about to his parents after the game.

He was so excited about it that, in Stallions lore, the play just might go down as "The Immaculate Deflection."