GREAT FALLS — It’s no secret that shrinking populations in rural communities have forced many small schools to co-op just to field teams for high school athletics.
The communities of Denton, Geyser and Stanford joined forces in 2013, and it’s been a roller coaster of peaks and valleys since. The DGS Bearcats had immediate success as a 6-Man co-op, finishing state runner up in 2013, the state semi-finals in 2014 and claiming their first title as a co-op in 2015.
Increased enrollment bumped the Bearcats up to the 8-Man ranks in 2016, where they made the playoffs out of the Southern division under first year head coach Matt Neumann.
DGS began the 2017 season with 13 kids out for football, but injuries saw the team end the season with just nine players in uniform and struggling to just two wins. Seven seniors will graduate and the Bearcats project to only add two freshmen next year.
Something had to change. The Bearcats appealed to the MHSA and were allowed to move back to 6-Man beginning this fall.
“Just feasibly looking at next year we knew that if we had to stay 8-Man it would be a really, really hard thing to even field a team,” Neumann said. “So we went to the MHSA and fortunately they let us drop down to 6-Man.”
Neumann grew up in Geyser and played football for the Wranglers when the schools were separate. A lot has changed since he graduated 10 years ago.
“There’s less kids at all the schools, and even now I think the participation rates have gone down,” Neumann said. “When I was in high school, there might be 2-3 boys that aren’t playing sports, now it could be a lot more than that. I mean we probably have 10 or so that aren’t really into sports, they have their interests elsewhere, which is fine but I think participation rates in sports overall has definitely declined.”
According to the latest available numbers, the combined enrollment at the three schools is 73 which is over the 65 student threshold for 6-Man teams. But the Bearcats were able to win their appeal by showing that participation is low and doesn’t project to increase next year.
“It’s hard. A good number for us next year will be 12,” Neumann said. “But realistically we’re probably looking at 9 or 10. It’ll be tough.”
The three schools came together by necessity after years as bitter rivals, but the experiment has worked. The rewards of operating as a co-op extends well beyond the field of play.
“I think the beautiful thing about it is that people from Geyser that might never know these kids from Stanford and Denton and vice versa,” Neumann said. “It’s brought a lot of people together for a good cause, and in basketball we were able to win districts. I know it puts a smile on everyone’s face when they were able to do that, because in all reality no one school can have their own team.”
The 6-Man level is a much better fit for the DGS football team, and though 2017 was rough on several fronts, a move and a fresh start could help the Bearcats recapture what made them perennial 6-Man contenders again.
“They’re excited mainly for the reason that we know for sure we’ll have a team and play a full schedule,” said Neumann. “And I think after a rough campaign last year, kids are pretty hopeful that we’ll hopefully win some more games this year.”
Several schools have been forced to cancel their varsity seasons because of low numbers over the last several years. Just last year defending 6-Man champ Hot Springs couldn’t field a team after moving to 8-Man. Poplar has opted to play a JV only schedule this coming fall.
Neumann hopes the move back down will prevent something like that from happening to these three tradition schools.
“I hope not, it makes me nervous,” he said. “It’s not something I like to think about.”