Apr. 21—Thorp football coach Keldric "KD" Stokes admits there hasn't been much time for development within the program in recent years. With a smaller crop of players to work with, some Cardinals were thrown into the deep end quickly in both practice and games.
"Over the past couple of years it's been kind of hard to practice 11-man," Stokes said. "We've got a young program, we've got some young kids, putting them up against seniors every day, sometimes it's a little hard on them. You're not getting the best look, you're not growing the program because you're going to lose some of those kids."
He, and the Thorp athletic department, hope the school's latest move helps alleviate that issue. The Cardinals are set to move from 11-man football to 8-man next fall, a transition approved by the WIAA's Board of Control earlier this spring.
"For us, this was a chance to get better," Stokes said.
Stokes, hired in 2019, said he was initially hesitant about the change. Understandable, considering he'd grown up on 11-man like most football players do. The former quarterback has played the traditional style of the game at the prep, college and semi-pro levels around the country and as far as Norway.
But as he began to reach out to those familiar with the 8-man style, he started to come around.
"The more I talked to coaches that were involved in 8-man and the more I heard about it, for our kids I just think it's beneficial to them," Stokes said.
"It gives them an opportunity to grow in the sport. Maybe at some point we can go back to 11, but right now it's getting our chance to grow the program, grow the sport, get some enthusiasm about it and get some young kids that can have some success and like it."
Thorp is slotted alongside Alma Center Lincoln, Athens, Gilman, Greenwood and Owen-Withee in the Central Wisconsin Conference's East Division, which will go into effect in 2022. Stokes said the Cardinals will play next fall in a conference of Athens, Almond-Bancroft, Owen-Withee, Lake Holcombe and Cornell. They will not be eligible for the 8-man postseason in their first season playing at the level.
The Cardinals are coming from a tough Marawood Conference, featuring football powers like Edgar, Colby and Abbotsford.
"When we played Edgar I thought we did some good things against them," Stokes said. "And then I don't think I had my team back by (next) Friday, they were just physically beat up. It's hard. We didn't want to run from it. We didn't want it to be running from a challenge, but as far as the future of the program, I just felt we had to do it."
At a 175-student enrollment, Thorp is slated to be the largest school in the CWC-East. Alma Center Lincoln and Athens are currently tied as the second largest schools at 156 students.
"I understand there's going to be some expectations for our program," Stokes said. "I think that's exciting for the kids to have this opportunity to have some success and be a team that's looked upon as a good team. We still have to earn that, but it's still a different outlook."
Twenty-three kids have signed up for next season, the same number as last year. Eight of those are freshmen, who should get more time to physically mature and develop their games than those first-year players in the past.
"We get to look at a kid and watch them grow compared to just sticking him out there and saying, 'Let's see what you've got, let's go against this all-conference player and see what you've got,'" Stokes said. "You don't really get a chance to learn strengths and weaknesses and you're not developing."
Stokes has work to do, now tasked with learning a new style of the game. There is a definite adjustment, as one of his future peers, Alma Center Lincoln's Jeremy Hanson, can attest. After also coming from 11-man, he had to drastically adjust the way he runs practices and had a whole new rule book to dig through. He learned the hard way that centers can be eligible for passes in a playoff game when Belmont orchestrated a 20-yard play.
"There's enough of it that is the exact same thing as 11-man that you get caught into 11-man thinking," Hanson said.
Stokes said it has been a bit like re-learning football. But he's enjoying it.
"Just trying to learn what we can and what we can't do has been pretty fun," Stokes said. "I've had a chance to show some things to some of the coaches, some of the parents, some of the kids, and they're excited. Our terminology is staying the same, there's just three less guys on the field."