FAIRFIELD — Every community in Montana is unique, and that extends to the high school football fields.
Recently several teams have struggled with numbers, whether it’s due to declining enrollment or fluctuating participation. The most visible struggles are in Class B where 10 teams have moved to the 8-Man level in just the past two years.
Fairfield, despite having the lowest enrollment among all Class B schools, is not one of them.
The Eagles consistently contend for state championships in all sports with only 107 students in the school according to the latest numbers from the Montana Office of Public Instruction. That’s well below the Class C limit of 130 students. Every year the MHSA recommends that Fairfield move to Class C, and every year the Eagles request to remain in Class B.
So how do the Eagles manage to stay competitive when other schools with larger enrollments are forced to re-classify?
“I think that’s a good question which we get asked that quite often and I think the bottom line is we’ve been able to go through a nice run of student athletes,” said Fairfield football coach and athletic director Les Meyer. “I think there’s a level of expectation for the kids themselves. But I think it’s important to their parents, it’s important to their community. It’s not just one thing, it’s a culmination of many factors, and we’ve been fortunate.”
Fairfield is certainly fortunate to have great student athletes and high participation, but who knows what the future holds for the Eagles and other Class B teams. That’s why Meyer and several other coaches and administrators are beginning to have conversations about the future of Class B 11-Man football.
“I actually think Class B is in a world of hurt and especially from a football standpoint,” Meyer said. “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.”
The creation of a 9-Man league has been discussed for Class B schools that struggle fielding 11-man teams but have enrollments too large for 8-Man.
Nine-man football is currently played by high schools in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. The rules are similar to 8-Man football with five men on the line of scrimmage and four in the backfield instead of three for 8-Man.
However unlike the 8-Man game which is played on an 80 yard field, the 9-Man game can be played on a regulation 100 yard field. This means Class B schools wouldn’t have to alter their stadiums or fields to move down. It’s a conversation worth having, but 9-Man football in Montana is not a realistic option yet for many reasons.
“A 9-man league in the state would be awesome,” Meyer said. “But 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. There’s such a disparity in enrollments, you have the Bakers of the world and the Wolf Points of the world but they have to be able to play somebody, and their enrollment is where it is. Or Eureka in the west. You have such tips.”
It’s a difficult conversation to have, with no easy solution. But it’s one that Meyer says needs to happen because current trends are not sustainable. More and more schools are eyeing moves to 8-Man, which will leave the Class B football ranks depleted.
And Fairfield is not immune.
“Never say never for us,” Meyer said. “Does the conversation need to happen? Yes it does, but at the same time the conversation should happen. So if you elect to stay, everybody is on the same page, but if you elect to go down everyone has had a voice in that.”