HOT SPRINGS – Undefeated and state champions, the Hot Springs Savage Heat ended the 2016 season on top of Montana’s Class C 6-Man football. The 2017 season will be different, though, as head coach Jim Lawson informed MTN Sports that the program will not field a varsity team, due to a lack of players.

Lawson said the decision to forfeit the season occurred on Monday.

The Savage Heat currently have nine players on its roster, well below the whopping 15 that wore a red jersey in 2016. The program lost nine seniors to graduation, as well as quarterback Marco Degel, a foreign-exchange student who returned to Germany.

“I mean, it’s tough,” Lawson said. “We’re competitors, us coaches are, too, so we want to be able to play varsity. But I feel bad for the kids that are there now, because they obviously want to go out and compete at a high level.

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“Obviously it’s always a tough call to do this. You don’t want to have to do it, but it’s in the best interest for everybody and for the team to go this route.”

This marks the first time Hot Springs will not play varsity football since 1997, three years before the team joined Plains High School as a Class B co-op in 2001.

“I gave some of (the players) a heads up beforehand that this might be a possibility, depending on how many kids come out and things like that,” Lawson said. “So some of them knew that, so I don’t think it was a real surprise to too many.”

Despite taking the varsity season off, Hot Springs is still attempting to play junior varsity games. All nine of its players are juniors or younger, and Lawson wants them to prepare the same as if the team was playing each week.

“We’re still going to coach (them) the same way. We still want (them) to play the same way and prepare as if it was varsity games,” Lawson said.

“I don’t think we have to have quite the same intensity, but we want them to know what it’s like to go into games and be coached and prepared to win, just like always.”

After finishing the 2016 season with a perfect 13-0 record and its second state championship in five years, Hot Springs was re-classified to Class C 8-man due to the MHSA’s adjustment of enrollment guidelines.

Lawson said the school’s decision would have remained the same regardless, due to low numbers.