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Making the switch

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Friday Thomas, Larimore2 / 2

LARIMORE—The first day of practice brought a pleasant surprise for Larimore High School football coach Kal Triplett. Two players reported who weren't expected to play.

Two players doesn't sound like a lot. But it makes an impact for the Polar Bears, who are transitioning this year to 9-man football after playing—and playing well—in the North Dakota Class A 11-man ranks.

"We had a couple guys show up who we didn't expect,'' Triplett said. "We'll take them. We expected to have numbers in the high teens. Now we're at 22.''

Still, 22 athletes is a continued decline. Triplett said it was a roster of 25 last season, 13 of them seniors. When senior Dalton Meidinger was a freshman, he remembers approximately 40 players on the team. But a combination of smaller class sizes and lower participation numbers resulted in the move to 9-man.

"Football is a numbers game,'' Meidinger said. "The more guys you have, the more positions you can fill. The more backups you have for positions. (Depth) really helps your team. It impacts things a lot.''

The switch comes after a long run of success in Class A 11-man. Larimore was 8-1 last season, its seventh straight season with an above-.500 mark. The Polar Bears were 48-10 over the last six seasons with a minimum of seven wins in each of those years.

But, given the school's declining enrollment numbers, Triplett said the switch to 9-man was expected. And, he said, the Larimore football community embraced the switch to 9-man.

There will be adjustments with two fewer players on the field. However, Triplett sees the biggest change not in the number of players, but in the amount of experience. Only Meidinger, Justin Hoffmann and Ethan Moore return with starting experience.

"We don't have the depth and the leadership we had last year,'' Triplett said. "Our kids are anxious to jump in. For a lot of them, this will be the first time on the varsity field. That will be the biggest adjustment for us.

"We'll be a completely different team. But it doesn't change what we do. We'll still run the ball a lot, something I like to do. I still consider us a power team, although we won't have the beef on the line like we have had.''

Triplett calls Meidinger the rock of the team, a returning two-way starter who led offseason workouts. Hoffmann, Carson Thorsell and Friday Thomas also figure to play key roles. Thomas, who transferred to Larimore prior to the 2016-17 school year, could be the offensive workhorse.

"Friday will be one of our main running backs,'' Triplett said. "He's one of the strongest, most athletic kids on the team. He's got good speed. But he's not a shifty, dancing back. He'll run over people.

"Friday has big-play ability. Now we have to find the other guys who will play. We have kids with talent. But they're almost all inexperienced. Everybody is getting their feet wet at the varsity level.''

The switch from 11-man to 9-man doesn't mean an easier schedule. Triplett said the top 9-man programs would be competitive with the top 11-man programs. But Larimore is happy to be in the 9-man ranks.

"It is good for us to play 9-man since we don't have the numbers anymore,'' Meidinger said. "Nine (is) a lot more field. You can do a lot more with less guys so it is a good place to be if you don't have a lot numbers.''