Back in the Saddle: STAB football returns to 11-man game

Photo by Kristi Ellis


Some standard fall matchups are about to be back on the football schedule. 


St. Anne’s-Belfield versus Trinity Episcopal.


St. Anne’s-Belfield versus St. Christopher’s.


And one of the most storied local private school rivalries, St. Anne’s-Belfield versus Blue Ridge.


After one year of a split schedule and two years of full-time 8-man, STAB is coming back to 11-man football this fall. The move back comes two years after the Saints made a full-time move to 8-man in 2018 and played a partial 8-man schedule in 2017. 


“I am thrilled to death about it,” said STAB coach John Blake. “Our kids are excited, our families are excited.”


Provided that high school football is a go this fall of course. STAB is in the same situation that all other athletic departments are dealing with, trying to prepare for the season and be ready to manage the COVID-19 related implications of playing sports. 


“In reality, in the back of our minds is how are things going to go this fall,” Blake said. “We’re looking at what other folks are trying to do in other states and listening to the experts. We’re in the process of that. If you’re looking into the CDC stuff, football is high risk because of the way it’s played. It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes.”


STAB’s move back to 11-man comes on the heels of two successful years in the VISFL’s 8-man game that ended as the championship runner-up in both seasons. They’ll enter with an 11-12 player senior class, an ideal number for STAB, and renewed player enthusiasm has helped STAB chart a course back to 11-man. 


“It has been the kids and the coaching staff and everybody involved in our school from the administration on down that has supported what we tried to do and we got a chance to build it once again,” Blake said.


The Saints will also jump back into the 11-man pool with a junior varsity program still playing 8-man, a critical component to the Saints maintaining an 11-man varsity program.


“The biggest issue we had was losing ninth graders because they had to play varsity football,” Blake said. “There are not too many kids our size that have a JV football team. We’re going to have to make sure we do well in the JV game. Trying to balance those classes out is going to be a big step for us, that’s what we’re pushing toward.”


STAB student section in 2019, Photo by Kristi Ellis


It doesn’t hurt the Saints either that Blake has a number of well-established relationships with coaches and programs state-wide because of his long tenure at STAB. That helped as the Saints started building out the schedule for this fall. 


“When I reached out to a lot of those coaches and had conversations with them, every coach was excited about us getting back and being able to play those games again,” Blake said. “I think it’ll be something our alumni, our former players, they’ll recognize the teams on our schedule.”


The Saints and a number of other schools’ move to 8-man had a major impact on scheduling for a lot of teams in VISAA’s Division II in particular. STAB will now add another local opponent in Fork Union (they’d played only occasionally over the years) and their return will have a positive impact on scheduling for any number of former opponents.


“I think it’s really exciting, one to have a local rival back but it’s also good for the health of football in the Charlottesville area,” said Blue Ridge athletic director Bryan Puckett. “For them to be able to recover and come back from eight-man is a great sign. It’s great to have them back.”


The Saints will compete independently for now while renewing a lot of the old Old Dominion Football Conference matchups of old like an annual date with North Cross. STAB played an integral role in the development of the VISFL two years ago. 


“We are thankful to the members of the VISFL, and were happy to have been a part of providing an alternate football experience for those struggling with numbers,” said STAB athletic director Dewayne Robinson in the school’s press release. “It has served as a way to keep football alive in many schools and will hopefully continue to do so for years to come.” 


Now though, the Saints are opening a new chapter, a chapter that will begin after a long break from any sports for most student athletes. 


“I think there are some things about the 11-man game that we’re thrilled to get back to,” Blake said. “Not only are we excited to get out and do anything, but now we’re going to be doing it in the 11-man game.”