It hasn’t taken long for 8-man football to have me hooked.

“But wait,” Whitepine League lifers might be thinking, “you weren’t before?”

It’s more I just hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t been around it in-person enough to give it the hat tip it deserves.

Yes, I’ve got to confess, my eyes had only been familiar with the talented basketball teams of the surrounding 1,000ish-population communities, which I’m tasked to follow at State each March.

Through office talk, I’d learned who’s most dominant in this small-town football realm. I’d heard coaches phoning in scores during Friday desk shifts, but before these past two weeks, that was about the extent of it.

In two years and some change, I’ve covered only three 8-man showdowns. My Fridays typically had been consumed with Vandal previews. And in general, fall days were spent roaming around, and writing, at the Kibbie Dome.

I can’t say I don’t miss the Idaho beat, and I definitely can’t say I don’t lament how the coronavirus has fundamentally reshaped the local sports world.

But the optimist in me can say with certainty a new appreciation has blossomed as I’ve switched gears from covering college to high schools. There’s something about the isolated, rural-school grind and its localities that resonates with me and my Priest River upbringing.

There seems to be a certain football purity to it. There’s no pick-of-the-litter, all homegrown talent, and little drama.

It’s generally around 20 athletes, a handful of mostly local coaches and — as I like to call them — the few hundred “assistants” scattered about on bleachers, sitting on lawn chairs bordering the field, or in many cases pacing back and forth and up and down the sidelines, following the action.

They’re very much a part of the experience, a part of the game, although they hold no official titles. Quite audibly, they’ll bark out directions for their kids like, “watch the sweep,” or “(insert name) is open!”

At some point, it becomes a bit of community vs. community. Insane yardage totals and electric finishes aside, that makes it fun, especially when said communities have a history.

It’s personal, in a way that’s often lost at higher levels. It feels like the names are recurring, the people are familiar, and intermingling. The WPL, for instance, is the only high school league we fully cover. So yes, the towns are nearby.

That’s not to mention how up-close it is for everyone involved. ... I’ve never gotten video highlights like these.

It has the picturesque backdrops and refreshing environments I’d guess many of us take for granted.

An orange sun dipping under the Palouse hills in Genesee; the rolling fields behind Troy’s wooden press box, which run right into trees on the Palouse’s border; and as a plus, the head-clearing scent of grass and pine, particularly when the sprinklers come on — weather permitting, the settings are comforting.

Then you have the football itself, which is ... man, it’s a lot of fun.

Sure, you’ll have your 80-30 blowouts. Yet in my limited experience as a spectator, it’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s unpredictable. Two weeks ago, Genesee bounced back from down two scores, then won it on a 61-yard touchdown pass with a minute left. Troy overcame a 16-point deficit in a blink last week to topple Potlatch in a 52-44 barnburner. I’ll never forget that one.

That game made for such a high-paced, highlight-filled night I almost didn’t mind having 30 minutes to frantically write, then siphoning off a bar of Troy High School’s WiFi to file my story at 11:15 p.m. from a lunch table near the school’s entrance.

There are dudes playing at the 8-man programs around here, some of whom are legitimate college prospects. You’ve seen the bonkers stats from individuals — like Deary quarterback Brayden Stapleton’s 400-yard, nine-touchdown rushing day — but it’s hard to understand it fully until watching it live.

When it comes to the talent, a team’s success sometimes becomes predicated on luck of the draw. With so much field and so few bodies out there, one star singlehandedly can alter a game, and boy they’re a joy to watch.

Troy’s Elijah Phillis was outsprinting everyone, and Potlatch’s Tyler Howard was a problem to bring down. The two combined for more than 600 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns.

Oh yeah, and both played almost every down in every phase of the game.

You’ve got to be tough, because breaks aren’t common when it comes to the smaller communities and their 8-man football, which I’ve come to find endearing in all aspects — exhilarating and hard-nosed with local charm.

Colton Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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