Despite an 8-2 record a year ago and winning a first-round North Dakota 9-man playoff game, participation projections following the graduation of 12 seniors led North Border to move its program to 6-man football this season.
It wasn't an ideal move for players growing up in the 9-man game.
"They're not happy, but it's still football and they're glad to be playing," North Border coach Tim Hartje said. "You always hear complaints but the kids have worked hard. They were disappointed but really worked hard and aren't showing it at all."
With participation numbers bouncing back for North Border, the program will only play one season at the independent 6-man level before rejoining the 9-man ranks in 2022.
In the meantime, the Eagles, who beat Drake-Anamoose 73-16 on Friday night, have been far and away the most dominant 6-man program in the state.
"Playing 9-man last year and my whole high school career, switching to 6-man was a big difference," North Border senior Eli Bjornstad said. "At the first practice, I looked around and it didn't feel right. It's a difficult thing. At the end of the day, I looked around at the guys we had and realized why we had to do it."
Bjornstad had four touchdown runs in the win over Drake-Anamoose.
North Border started the season with 11 players. That number has climbed and fell, with the peak participation of 16 players.
The Eagles have outscored 6-man opponents 484-70 in seven games.
"We have very good athletes," Hartje said. "We're not really big, but we're athletic across the board."
The Eagles are led by Jaxen Johnson, a 6-foot-5 quarterback and linebacker. Johnson, an all-state first team linebacker last year at 9-man, had 110 tackles last season. He has about half of that number this season, which Hartje said is a reflection of the style of game in 6-man.
Bjornstad, at 5-10 and 210 pounds, is a four-year starter and two-time all-region pick. He plays fullback, linebacker and defensive end.
"I know a lot of people think 6-man is a joke but at the end of the day we get to play and there's something for us," Bjornstad said. "6-man is a faster-paced game. Me being 210 pounds and chasing speedy guys ... I'm in 6-man to get in better shape."
Bjornstad placed third at 220 pounds at last year's North Dakota state wrestling meet.
"It's still football, and it's blocking and tackling but everyone is eligible," Hartje said. "You can't just leave the center. You have to control your pass rush. You're chasing a quarterback down and the guy you just beat catches the ball and burns you."
The 6-man state championship game is Oct. 23 in Minot. Bjornstad thinks his team can continue to dominate the classification.
"I believe our guys are bigger, stronger and faster," he said. "We had a very competitive team last year, and we didn't lose that competitive spirit. We didn't lose that will to want to succeed and win and that's the key to our success this season."