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Friday Night Lights: THE NEW NUMBERS GAME

On the Hi-Line and across Montana, many high schools are dealing with football participation issues

 

September 7, 2018

Colin Thompson

The Chester-Joplin-Inverness Hawks and Choteau Bulldogs battle during a Northern C 8-Man football game last Friday night in Chester. While CJI has strong numbers this season, many teams along the Hi-Line are dealing with participation issues in high school football, including North Star, which had to forfeit last week's rival game against Big Sandy. Choteau is also an example of how the landscape of high school football has changed in Montana. The Bulldogs are a Class B school, and were once a strong contender in 11-man football. Now however, with declines in enrollment in many rural Montana high schools, and less and less participation in the sport of football, for a variety of reasons, schools like Choteau are now playing 8-man football, instead of Class B football, which is full 11-man.

No matter what part of the country you live in, there is something special about high school football.

In Montana, there is no exception to that rule. Friday nights are sacred in Big Sky Country, however, across the state, participation numbers are down, and it has led to more and more forfeits.

And not just games, but seasons, too.

Locally, the North Star Knights, a program with a proud tradition in the Class C Six-Man North Division recently forfeited a game against Big Sandy. It's not surprising in today's climate but at one time, it was pretty hard to imagine the Knights not fielding a team for a varsity game.

“One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was go to our AD and say I can’t put a team on the field,” North Star head coach Shawn Rettig said. “We had a couple of fluke injuries. I lost one of my better players to an ACL on a fluke injury. But it was awful to do, and I never thought we would have to do something like that.”

After all, it wasn’t long ago that the Knights were a perennial playoff team and even as recent as last season, they were a playoff contender. This season, North Star has struggled to find enough kids to play, and after getting through the first week, injuries and a lack of numbers got the best of them. Yet, after a bye this week, Rettig said the Knights should be back on the field.

“We should have nine kids for the game in two weeks,” Rettig said. “My goal is to play the rest of the games this season.”

While the Knights are suffering due to low numbers, they aren’t alone, and it’s a problem that isn’t just a Six-Man or Class C issue. Teams playing 8-Man football, teams in Class B and even a Class A team like Havre are seeing a big dip in numbers.

“It might be a CTE scare,” Havre head football coach Ryan Gatch said. “Whatever it might be I am not sure. I think there are a lot of different factors. When I showed up there were around 500 kids and I anticipated having 20 freshmen, 17 sophomores, 15 juniors and 12 seniors playing. This year, I have a total of 11 freshmen that came out for the team. Since then, we have added two for 13.”

Gatch said when he became the head coach at Havre High, he had 49 kids on his varsity football team. This season, there are less than 40 players out for the Blue Ponies, and at the start of the season, Gatch said he had just 11 freshmen.

“We didn’t lose a lot of guys to not participating,” Gatch said. “We had a few kids play different sports and a few kids that moved to different towns. But we also had 12 kids choose to not play because of eligibility issues. So we have instituted our academic game plan and that’s different. Two years ago, we didn’t lose any players due to eligibility. Last year was the first time I had ever seen anybody drop out of school that had been on our football team. It’s a real interesting dynamic.”

While the Ponies are down in numbers, they aren’t in the situation some teams are in. Among the teams that have forfeited games or entire seasons are North Star, Poplar, Custer-Hysham and Wolf Point. Other teams along the Hi-Line that have also had issues with low numbers in recent years are Chester-Joplin-Inverness, Box Elder, Rocky Boy and Hays-Lodge Pole. CJI has better numbers this season, according to head coach Jim Vinson, but it’s something that can go in cycles and after having no seniors on the football team in 2017, the Hawks are on the rebound.

“We have better numbers than we did a few years ago,” Vinson said. “For a while, our school was girl heavy and now it is boy heavy and that is a good thing for football.”

When it comes to fewer student-athletes coming out for football, a dip in enrollment is one obvious explanation. However, according to Rettig, it’s not the only one.

“I think there are a lot of safety issues,” Rettig said. “I think kids are worried about concussions and getting hurt. I wish I had an answer. I just really don’t know. A lot of kids say it’s about the coach or that they are busy but I think that’s just an excuse. Kids have interests elsewhere, too, but I think it’s safety, I really do.”

As far as getting more kids to come out for football, Rettig, who has also been an official for many years, said the MHSA will have to work to improve player safety, or at the very least, allow more co-ops, which are better for player development, because it could limit young players being forced to play before they are ready.

“The MHSA has to step in and promote football more,” Rettig said. “And if that means stepping in and saying, hey, if you fair catch on a kickoff, we will give you the ball at the 25 or eliminate the kickoff altogether. I think that is what it’s coming to. I think they will go to that to try and make the sport safer. And they will have to let us co-op more because that will allow players to develop more instead of trying to come in as a ninth-grader who has never played before and play against juniors and seniors. That would help, too.”

 

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