SHELBY — When Mike White came to Shelby 15 years ago, the high school looked a lot different.
“When I started we were hovering around 230 students,” recalled the Coyotes football coach and Athletic Director. “But we’ve probably lost about 100 to 115 students since then, so about half of our kids.”
The latest data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction lists Shelby’s enrollment at 119 students for the 2017-18 school year and trending downward. From a football standpoint, the declining numbers along with lower participation have lowered roster sizes.
Shelby made a run to the Class B title game in 2017 on the strength of 11 seniors, but some days they struggled to dress out 20 players at practice making scrimmaging and game-planning much more difficult.
Looking at projected numbers for the 2018-19 school year, Shelby petitioned to move down to the 8-Man level for football.
“It’s probably been a two year process,” White said. “We looked into it a couple years ago. To be honest with you, we knew we had a strong senior class coming back. The competitive side of those kids and us just thought the best thing to do would be to get through another year in Class B, and that would be the right thing to do”
Their request was initially denied by the MHSA board in November, but they appealed the decision and were allowed to move down in January.
“They had a few questions as far as our roster size and our success,” White said. “Obviously we had a nice run at the end of the season and played in a state championship game, and those things are always looked at. But anyone that knows sports in particular knows that it takes a little bit of luck to get that far. We went and visited with them in January – went through those questions that they had for us. We answered them and we moved forward with it.”
While Shelby is the latest Class B football team to drop down to the 8-Man ranks, they join nine other teams that made the move prior to the 2017 season including District 1B rival Choteau. Class B was healthy in 2010 with 45 teams, but this fall only 27 11-Man squads remain in the classification.
It’s a statewide epidemic as fewer and fewer kids return to school each year, and even less come out for football.
“There’s a lot of different theories out there about why numbers are dropping,” White said. “We have a ton of kids that participate but we also have kids that get jobs and work and try to pay for their own car, or what have you. But for the most part, I just think there’s a lack of people moving back to these small communities.”
And that problem is not unique to Shelby.
“It depends on each community,” White said. “We’ve lost numbers. But I don’t think we’re the only ones, I know we’re not the only ones, it’s going to be something that happens around our area and around the state in the next few years for sure.”
The decision to move down wasn’t made lightly. Shelby has a rich history on the gridiron with several athlete moving on to the college level. But the problem with low numbers is development. White wants to build a program with under-varsity teams, but with less than 25 players at practice that’s nearly impossible.
“In 2016 we didn’t have any sub-varsity games so it goes back to being able to build that program, get those kids playing,” added White. “It’s tough when you’re a freshman and sophomore and you sit for two straight years and do nothing but practice and then all of a sudden you expect to play, or if you even continue to play. Those are the things we’re looking forward to for sure.”
Now Shelby moves from the tough Northern B to the brutal Northern C 8-Man division. The Coyotes have to shorten their field to 80 yards and create a new playbook – but White and his staff are well equipped for the transition.
“I used to coach at Medicine Lake in Eastern Montana, so I know the 8-Man game,” he said. “We’re going to get a little film and we’re going to go to some camps this summer, and I’m hoping that coming off the last few years of success, not only football, but you have basketball and you have wrestling and track they’ve had success. So we’re hoping to build that culture around here in everything we do, and the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”