Montana’s ever-changing landscape paints a bleak picture for Class B high school football fans — so much so that the once-proud classification appears to be headed toward a crossroads.
At the turn of the century, Class B boasted nearly 50 schools. This fall, only 27 teams will take the field as Class B 11-man football squads. Looking beyond the 2018 season requires a crystal ball into which few are comfortable peering.
“Man, I don’t know,” Colstrip athletic director Mark Ator said when asked to describe what Class B looks like in 10 years. “In three years and 10 years, we could see dramatic change (in Colstrip) supposedly. We hope not, but I honestly don’t know. … I’m just trying to look two and four years down the road.”
There will almost certainly be more changes to the classification in coming years. In 2016, the Montana High School Association adjusted the enrollment cutoffs for schools participating in football. Schools with enrollments between 131 and 350 students play Class B 11-man football; schools with 66-130 students play 8-Man football.
That realignment resulted in revamped Class B and 8-Man classifications for the 2017 season as teams like Rocky Boy, Choteau, Forsyth and Lodge Grass, among others, took the opportunity to drop their 11-man programs to pick up 8-Man teams.
Shelby, which lost to Eureka in the 2017 Class B football championship, is dropping to 8-Man for the upcoming season. Poplar is fielding just a junior varsity program.
“I think we’re worried about Class B football,” Ator said. “I’ve just been concerned about football in general. A lot of us are having trouble fielding JV teams right now. Numbers have been an issue.”
The dwindling enrollments have added financial strains to the classification, wreaking havoc on the football schedule. There are no more tight-knit football conferences. Instead, the Northern B stretches from Wolf Point to Fairfield, the Eastern B from Baker to Red Lodge, the Southern B from Big Timber to Whitehall, and the Western B from Anaconda to Eureka. Each conference consists of seven teams, except the Eastern B, which has only six.
“Every time (a team moves out of Class B), it has affected every district. It’s hard to make up those games,” said Bigfork athletic director Dave Creamer. “We had a home game scheduled with Shelby this year, so we had to find something else.”
“It just gives us a challenge for, how do we schedule?” Creamer continued. “You have to look out for those Eurekas and people a little bit farther out and make sure they get games. Even though we might be fairly close to Cut Bank, Eureka’s two hours farther out and we need to think about them. I think the committee did a really nice job of finding something that would work. It’s just this constantly changing thing.”
The short-term schedule is set, which resulted in 25 teams receiving a minimum of four home games. Bigfork and Manhattan will each host three home games with the teams agreeing to play a neutral-site season opener at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
But the long view is still murky at best. Will Class B gain teams from Class A drop-downs or larger Class C schools? Or will Class B lose more teams, either up to Class A or down to 8-Man?
“I am worried about it,” said Malta athletic director Scott King. “I have spoken to Class B caucuses, our Class B association, several years ago that I was worried about Class B athletics and the idea that we’re losing schools rather than gaining schools. I worry about how our divisions are being structured, but I’m not sure there are better ways to do it.”
“I actually think Class B is in a world of hurt, and especially from a football standpoint,” added Fairfield football coach Les Meyer. “The option to be able to go 8-Man is there, and there’s valid reason to do that because of numbers. But those communities have a lot of pride, and those communities want to stay up for other sports. But football is a numbers game.”
It’s a numbers game that has already imposed massive consequences on Class B football and could ultimately eliminate the classification. As fewer and fewer schools can field 11-man teams, more and more coaches and administrators turn the discussion to 9-man football as a potential solution. It’s a controversial topic with strong advocates on either side of the fence.
Instituting 9-man football to the Montana high school football landscape isn’t yet an option, but the conversation could quickly grow louder.
“A 9-man league in the state would be awesome,” Meyer said. “The problem with that is, what happens to those Class B schools that don’t have the enrollment to go 9-man and don’t have the enrollment to go Class A? That would be a very difficult thing for Class B and those schools. There isn’t an easy answer.”
No, Class B football faces no easy answers.