BOX ELDER — In a perfect world, high school enrollment and athletic participation would be permanently linked and correlated, but in several Montana communities that’s certainly not the case.
In the case of Box Elder, the Bears have always had successful basketball teams and had no problem drawing kids to play hoops. Football is another story.
“We struggle with that every year,” said Bears football coach and athletic director Neal Rosette Jr. “We tell kids they should try out football, and that they’d enjoy it. It’s just getting them out there, getting them conditioned, getting them thinking football. We have the athletes, we definitely have the numbers, it’s just getting them interested and motivated.”
Three years ago, Box Elder made an incredible run to the 6-Man title game – a first for the school. The next year, the program saw a record number of kids come out for football. But it was a double-edged sword.
Box Elder has always been among the larger Class C schools, but was able to remain in the 6-Man ranks because participation was historically low. The uptick in numbers in 2016 forced the Bears to the 8-Man ranks, but the wins didn’t follow.
“When we did make that run in 2015, we had some athletes, we did have some studs,” recalled Rosette. “The following year, we come out and had 25 plus kids now because we did have that success. We follow it up with a little less success and the numbers dropped. But after that transition to 8-Man it was tough to keep them motivated. You build these rivalries with other schools and pretty soon they’re not on our schedule anymore. Kids show a little less interest. I’d love to have 20-30 kids every year, but it just hasn’t been that way.”
Lack of success is one thing, but Rosette knows there are plenty of other factors keeping kids off the field.
“I hate to say it but some kids are only interested in basketball and not football,” he said. “You would think they want to get out and do a little more or be part of a team, but some people are a little fearful, especially with things like concussions. Some parents are a little wary of having kids get hurt. They want to save themselves for basketball.”
A move back to the 6-Man ranks might be in the cards for the Bears after a year in which they sometimes practiced with only eight or nine kids on a given day. But it will have to wait for at least one more year.
I think we would have had a strong case to go back into the 6-Man ranks, but there’s other factors,” Rosette said. “Matt Molyneaux up in Chinook does a great job scheduling the 8-Man North, and if they got you on the schedule then they’re assuming you’re going to be there for at least that two year rotation. You don’t want to mess with it.”
Ultimately, you play the hand you’re dealt. Rosette and the Bears will play whoever is in front of them with no complaint because they know they’re not the only team facing problems with numbers.
“I think the idea is to see where we’re at this year with numbers, and mid-season we’ll plan our petition,” Rosette said. “I’ve always said Box Elder should be an 8-Man school but with participation numbers so low and with the history of participation numbers, I think it would benefit our kids to be at our six man ranks. But we’ll play wherever they tell us to play.”
There’s no telling what numbers will be in the future, but there might be a solution 15 miles to the East.
“Rocky Boy and Box Elder used to co-op in the past for 8-Man, I think that’s what you might see in the future as numbers change,” he said. “You might see some co-ops for the 8-Man that you normally didn’t have as opposed to co-ops for the 6-Man. I think that might be something coming down the pipe that people will be seeing more often.”
There are no easy solutions to the issues facing high school football in small towns. The only certainty is that more change is coming, and the only option is to ride the wave and embrace the uncertainty.
“I can see this playing out where, one year, one school will be in the Northern 8-Man one year and then the next year, they’ll be out,” Rosette said. “It’s just going to be a revolving door, new teams in and new teams out. The only solution is to stick with what you have, I guess. We have kids that are pretty anxious to be back out there and play games and get on the field with their buddies. But they also got parents that want to go back to 6-Man. It’s a tough thing to tell a kid, ‘No I’m not going to petition for 6-Man.’ They get a little discouraged. There’s not really any one solution, it’s just a matter of sticking to what we have and going with it. And if we’re destined to be in 8-Man, destined to be in 8-Man.”