By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
It's a day that Chinook Superintendent of schools Jay Eslick saw coming.
He just didn't imagine that day would come so soon.
Because of a lack of student-athletes and declining enrollment, Eslick, along with head football coach Matt Molyneaux, has decided to forfeit the entire 2004 varsity football schedule for the Chinook Sugarbeeter football team.
"Matt had 18 players show up for the first day of practice," Eslick said. "Of those 18, we had no freshmen, no seniors and three kids who have never played the game before."
Eslick said that Molyneaux sat down to look at the possibility of fielding a team with those 18 kids, but ran into trouble filling out the needed positions, particularly offensive and defensive linemen.
"We just don't have the horses to compete," Eslick said. "Most of the kids are undersized. And a lot of them just aren't football kids."
Obviously, 18 players is far from where a Class B football program needs to be. But for Eslick it also came down to the safety of those 18 players, considering the Beeters' brutal schedule this season.
"That's paramount to everything," he said. "You look at our schedule with Fort Benton and Cut Bank, those teams come to play. At some point, you have to factor in safety of the athletes."
Still, the decision to forfeit the varsity schedule didn't come easily for either Eslick or Molyneaux.
"We absolutely agonized over the decision," Eslick said. "We went to the board last week and told them of the possibility."
Instead of playing a varsity schedule, Eslick said athletics director Paula Molyneaux is working to scheduling a limited junior varsity schedule with teams in the conference.
"We should be able to fill some of the varsity play dates by playing junior varsity games with smaller schools like Simms," Eslick said.
It won't be the same and forfeiting the varsity games, ensures that no player can earn any postseason accolades.
"Obviously, they're frustrated about forfeiting the games," Eslick said. "But the kids also looked around and realized 'holy smokes! We might be in some trouble.'"
With no seniors, the future of the Beeter football program is relatively bright, but probably not at the Class B level.
Eslick said the school is petitioning the Montana High School Association to play a Class C football schedule next year.
"It's still very preliminary," he said. "But we just don't see the situation changing. We're still looking at between 15 and 18 kids for next season.
"Football is a numbers game. And we just don't have the numbers."
Unfortunately for Chinook sports fans, the problems with the football team are a sign of things to come.
Chinook will easily be the smallest team in Class B this year, according to Eslick, who said that the school has 120 registered students for the upcoming year. That is 10 shy of the maximum of 130 students for Class C status.
Once a school spends two years under that 130-student cutoff, it can petition to become Class C, a fate that is likely for Chinook.
"We just don't see the numbers going up," Eslick said. "If you look at our class sizes in the grades coming up, they are all right around 25 to 30 kids, which means were going to stay around 120 to 130 kids."
This declining enrollment and possible change in classification is not a shock to Eslick, who mentioned it as a future possibility last year.
"It's not a surprise at all," he said. "I pulled out an enrollment projection sheet we started five years ago and we are actually below those projections for this year.
"We are actually about three years ahead of where we thought we'd be in terms of going to Class C. We thought we'd be Class C in the 2007-08 school year. Now it looks like it will be sooner."
As for the apparent change, Eslick tried to remain positive.
"Right now, we can compete well in Class B in certain sports, but every year it will get tougher," he said. "I am sure it will be a big adjustment to drop down, but Big Sandy, Chester and Belt all used to be Class B schools. So it's happened in other places and didn't affect the community negatively."