Monday, August 22, 2011

The Rivals: Montana's New Co-op

Six-Man Solitude by mdt1960
Six-Man Solitude, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
When it comes to playing football under the circumstances of dwindling enrollment numbers, six-man football is the ultimate story of adaptation. A school with only fifteen players could prop up an eleven-man team with the hope that injuries don’t finish off their season. However, a better scenario would be for the same team to play six-man football and have enough players to scrimmage during practice and field a respectable and competitive team.

But, what if a school doesn’t even have twelve players—enough to scrimmage in six-man? In the case of Highwood and Geraldine—two perennial powerhouses in Montana six-man play—this is exactly what happened.

Since 1988 these two six-man teams have notched 18 championship game appearances… that’s 18 of the last 23 title games. Of those 18 title games, 15 resulted in victory. In five of those title games, the two rivals faced each other.

Beginning this year, due to a decline in classroom enrollments, the high-octane rivalry of Highwood and Geraldine will transform into a six-man football co-op that is already turning heads. Lead by Geraldine’s veteran coach, Rod Tweet, the Rivals will be competing in Montana’s Six-Man Northern Conference.

Tweet is cautious about making any kind of predictions regarding his team as a state contender. “We don’t have the number of kids to compete anymore,” declared Tweet. “The kids we have are good kids, but injuries play a big role in the game. So, it’s not like we’re going to get together and have 25 kids to play football.” The Rivals started their first week of practice with 16 kids on the roster.

Talk of the merge commenced during last year’s football season. Both teams starting looking at their (already low) numbers and anticipated that each school would barely have enough to field a six-man team. The initial projections were seven players from each school. Tweet’s first discussions were with his players. “I told the boys we were at a spot where I didn’t know if we could finish the season, because injuries are part of football and we’ve had more than are fair share in the last two or three years.”

Tigers and Mountaineers by mdt1960
Tigers and Mountaineers, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Not only was that a dismal outlook for having a competitive season, but it also threatened either program’s future should injuries force such a small-staffed football team to forfeit games. According to Montana High School Association, if a school forfeits two of its games in a season, they are required to compete at a junior varsity level the following year. This would have been a setback for the upperclassmen of either school if they found themselves competing at the junior varsity level in their senior year.

Born from a need to survive, the two Chouteau County football programs will forego their annual contest on the gridiron and whatever rivalry remains between the two schools will be nourished from the volleyball and basketball courts or the track.

Creating and maintaining any kind of athletic co-op is never easy—ask the folks in Custer and Melstone or Broadview and Lavina. There’s much to consider in all of the messy logistics that come together to make for a successful season regardless of the win-loss record. Some of the trickier orchestrations include: coordinating transportation for practices, selecting a team mascot and colors that both schools will adopt, choosing captains without showing favor to one school over the other, making homecoming week arrangements—all of these while pulling support from the participating communities. This becomes even more challenging and complex when two hotly-contested opponents like Geraldine and Highwood are asked to work together.

Highwood Mountains Network by mdt1960
Highwood Mountains Network, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that this first year for the Rivals will be a bumpy ride, but how well they fair in their new co-op relationship will be critical in establishing how smooth their co-op runs in future seasons. “The obvious problem with co-ops is getting kids on the same page,” according to Coach Tweet. “You’ve got two towns with their own identities and trying to blend them together takes time. I don’t know how long that really takes to get it so they think of it as one team.”

If there is one thing that might keep the bumps to a minimum, it will be the fact that the two communities have already established and maintained a co-op between their two junior high football programs for the past five years.

Even if the Geraldine-Highwood co-op is not the first, it is likely pushing the limits of daily operations required of a football team given the one-hour travel time between each school. Perhaps they can look to the six-man football co-op of Custer and Melstone for inspiration. These two schools have survived for over ten years with a 40-mile stretch of dirt road between them. But, there are casualties to consider as well, such as the short-lived Rapelje-Ryegate co-op. Rapelje now co-ops with Reed Point, while any Ryegate kids that wish to play football travel to Harlowton.

Despite the rich tradition of winning at Geraldine and Highwood, their real adversary in whether they ever bring a six-man title trophy home again might not be in the stiff competition they see each week on the gridiron, but all of the off-field logistical struggles required in maintaining a healthy and working co-op.

Postscript: The Rivals have four home games on the schedule, two will be played in Geraldine and two in Highwood.

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