Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Wyoming could learn from Montana: Part 2

Longhorns & Bus
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I suppose someone has to shout out, "The king has no clothes."

So, in other words, Wyoming has too many classes of football given the few numbers of schools that participate. Count them up: Approximately 57 Wyoming teams participate in five different classes of football—that's a dozen (or less) schools competing for a state title in any one class! Need I mention this only constitutes a big-conference championship in most other states? It's rather laughable to hear of a Wyoming high school tout itself as state champs when they are only the best team in a field of no more than twelve teams. Too bad they can't travel down to Colorado after being crowned "state champs" in Wyoming to compete against the best of their class there.

Nevertheless, a few exceptions come to mind when pondering the watered-down state football titles in Wyoming.

The Cokeville Panthers won the Wyoming 1A title in 2001—the states smallest class of football. However, during the regular season, they also defeated the eventual 3A champions—Big Piney on the Puncher's home field. Surely that was a team deserving of a state title. Unless I'm mistaken, their 2001 schedule also included victories over a couple 2A schools as well.

Another argument against Wyoming's over-saturated classes of football concerns the playoff pairings at the end of the year. Not only do mediocre teams (with losing records) advance to the playoffs, but such dismal numbers in each class result in more rematches when the playoffs finally roll around—it's not uncommon for two schools that faced-off during the regular season to play again in the post-season—the title game included.

This past year, after losing its final game (at home) to Buffalo decisively, Powell High School (and its forlorn 3-5 record) went on the following week to play Buffalo again in the first round of the playoffs—in Buffalo where they lost just as decisively—talk about a waste of gasoline.

In 2004, two of the five championship games in Wyoming were rematches from the regular season. No doubt rematches were seen at the playoff level that year as well. My point here is that every effort should be made to beef up the numbers in each class (if possible) insuring the playoff brackets will be "fresh" in match-ups.

Contrast that to many of Montana's playoff games where the deeper the playoffs go, the more likely the two opposing teams have not seen each other in years—sometimes never, certainly not during the regular season. Rare is the case when two teams that played during the regular season face off again in a playoff game. Such scenarios are an oddity—a hiccup—not the norm. (The only exception to this argument is Class AA—Montana's largest class—which fields only 14 teams.)

At last count, Montana has 150 teams (made up from 176 schools—some teams are co-ops) playing in five classes of football broken down into the following: Class AA-11 (players): 14 teams, Class A-11: 24 teams, Class B-11: 41 teams, Class C-8: 45 teams, Class C-6: 26 teams. That works out to an average of 30 teams per class.

Because they are eight-man and six-man play, these last two classes (Class C) are the key ingredients that set football in Montana apart (and above) from Wyoming's offering of the game—where all classes are eleven-man. Bluntly stated: small towns and eleven-man football don't make for an ideal marriage. Here's why...

When I attended a Wyoming 1A class game back in 2003 between Hulett and Ten Sleep. The two teams fielded less than 30 players—combined! I believe Ten Sleep never had more than two players on the bench during the game. These kind of conditions lead to a game of lesser quality—a product of smaller, underclassmen players starting in a game they typically have no business playing while the better part of their activity on the field is running around and staying out of the way of the larger and older players. In the end what you have is basically an eight-man or six-man game anyway with a handful of inert players on the same field. That being the case, why not play the actual game that is more representative and spare the unnecessary injuries incurred by any smaller/underclassmen players on the field?

Not long after that game in Hulett, Ten Sleep and another Wyoming school (Meeteetse) apparently had enough of barely fielding eleven-man teams year after year only to be thumped each week (expect when they played each other) and jumped to Montana's six-man football class. I suspect both teams have to drive a bit farther for away games, but I'm sure it is worth it now.

* * *

I don't offer any definitive ideas on improving high school football in Wyoming, but I do believe adhering to Friday nights and Saturday afternoons for all games is a step in the right direction. Following that, I suspect formulating a new classification system that has fewer classes would be best. Perhaps a three-class system where the existing 5A and 4A teams are consolidated into one group (Class A) while the 3A and 2A teams compete at the next level of eleven-man play (Class B). Those 1A schools that wish to stay as eleven-man can join Class B as the remaining schools would join the new programs from other small schools making up Wyoming's new six-man league (Class C). Assuming most of Wyoming's existing teams stay at eleven-man play, that would boost the average of the 11-man classes to 23 teams per class and thus providing a sense of respect to any team crowned "state champ" in Wyoming.

You might be asking about now, "Why six-man instead of eight-man?" Although I'm not as passionate about this proposal, I believe it would be the best for those schools that haven't had football programs to start or restart in six-man play and thus create greater opportunities at the small-school level for student participation and, at the same time, provide another worthy local event for Wyoming's rural communities to rally around.

The good news is that discussions are already underway at the Wyoming High School Activities Association (WHSAA) as they consider the idea of starting a sub-eleven-man football conference—undoubtedly inspired by Meeteetse and Ten Sleep. As of this writing, I've learned that a six-man conference is the likely choice. The WHSAA is requiring at least eight committed schools if they are to proceed with this league that would commence in the 2009 season. Let's hope this materializes.

So, what is required of a school destined to support a six-man football team? In a word, numbers. Typically, the schools in Montana that have healthy six-man football programs are endowed with enrollments numbers (grades 9-12) around 40—Rosebud (25) and North Star (83) are the extremes. According to a couple sources, schools such as Kaycee, Chugwater, Little Snake River (Baggs), Rock River, Encampment, Farson-Eden, and Arvada-Clearmont are prime candidates while Ten Sleep and Meeteetse are givens. That's nine possible teams already and surely there are a few others out there that are looking or perhaps one or two of the existing 1A teams are considering the change as well.

Now, if we could only get the school at Jeffrey City to reopen as well...

Perhaps the most significant obstacle in creating this new class will be the entrenched negative outlook that seems to prevail on less-than-eleven-man-play throughout Wyoming. I suppose there are a number of reasons why it lingers—eleven-man football is what the pros and college teams play and is therefore as formidable as any argument needed. Nevertheless, just because a game uses eight or six players to make a football team does not make it inferior—ask any of those schools or communities in Montana who have moved down from eleven-man to eight-man or from eight-man to six-man.

I remember hearing years ago about the dwindling enrollments at Hysham, Montana and the community's reluctance to step down to six-man from eight-man. I suppose the success they experienced at the eight-man level countered the thought of playing six-man. In 2004, Hysham made it to the eight-man quarterfinals with a 12-man roster before bowing out—the result of injuries to key players. As it turned out, that quarterfinal loss was telling about the importance of depth in a football team. Knowing their numbers were predicted to stay down, the Hysham community felt it was in the school's best interest to play six-man football thereafter. After only two years and a school enrollment of 36 (9-12), they won the six-man state title in a field of 26 teams. When I attended the title game in Hysham, I didn't detect any signs of a longing for the old days of eight-man football.

Over the last ten years I've driven all over Wyoming and Montana in search of small town high school football. And each time I pass through Farson on my way to Cokeville, Big Piney or Pinedale, I always think to myself that it's a shame they can't have their own football games. So, imagine my excitement in contemplating the idea of attending a football game in such new and remote locations as Farson... or Baggs... or Chugwater... or Kaycee... or Encampment.

Wyoming six-man football... build it and they will play.