SHELBY — When it was first announced back in January that the Shelby Coyotes’ football program would be joining the 8-Man ranks for the 2018 season, the decision was met with complaints and controversy. The Coyotes were coming off a state runner-up season on the Class B football fields, but graduated 11 seniors from the 2017 roster and were predicting around 26 student-athletes to try out for the team this fall.
Shelby’s move may have seemed sudden to many, but it was a decision two years in the making after the Montana High School Association changed its enrollment requirements among classifications, meaning schools with 66 to 130 students would be eligible to play 8-Man football. Shelby, one of the smallest schools in the Class B football ranks, had been well within that range for years.
MTN Sports sat down with Shelby head coach Mike White and superintendent Elliott Crump to discuss the decision to drop down, the process and the blowback, as well as outreach, the community has faced in its first year of 8-Man football.
Elliott Crump: “We’re sitting at 114 kids right now, as of today. We’ve been between 110 and 120 for the past five years and if the number is 130, it makes sense for us to play 8-Man football.”
MTN Sports: Shelby’s 114 students during the 2018-2019 school year match last year’s enrollment, both down from 118 students in 2015-2016 and the 117 the following school year. Despite the trend, the Coyotes weren’t planning on making any immediate moves.
Crump: “You know, it really wasn’t something that was (originally) on our radar. We didn’t start thinking about it until two years ago when the MHSA made that decision to drop Class C from 119 to 103, and when they did that they made the change for 8-Man to go up to 130, so when they did that it was in the middle of our season and they asked schools to apply to either go down or remain where they were, and we weren’t ready to do that yet. We talked to our board and we said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to do that yet. We’re going to play our season and not think about it until after this season.’ By then it was too late to make any changes. We talked about it throughout the year, we got to June, the summertime when we started having that conversation, met with some of our community members and we decided that it was something we needed to pursue. At that point we put in the application, I think it was at our June board meeting, put that in and went to the MHSA board, where they made the decision after the season, and we had a successful season last year, second in the state (in Class B), and they denied it at that time. We were questioning why, so we sent some information in to ask why, they asked us to come down to the MHSA meeting, we went down to that meeting, we took a look at the numbers and they said, ‘You’re within the range, why aren’t you playing 8-Man football?'”
Mike White: “You know, I think the process was, we looked at it a couple years ago. We knew that the numbers were dropping down, we knew that Class C was looking at moving their numbers up a little bit, just based on a handful of things. Really the whole state has been affected if people look back over the last 10 years, teams drop down. We looked at it, we reached out to the community and did those types of things, we did our homework and we started this all before even last year’s season, seeing where we would be at. It just kind of progressed from there. We looked at what we have coming up in our (younger) classes and they’re relatively small. I know people seem to think 115 kids is a lot, but when you’re used to 230 in your high school it’s not. We had nine kids this year that came out that we weren’t anticipating, we had a couple kids move in, we have a foreign exchange student. But to be totally honest with you, one of the things I told the MHSA board when I was there was, ‘I’m going to get as many kids out to play football as I can.’ I think here in Shelby we have 85 percent of our student body involved in extracurricular activities, from FFA to athletics to speech and drama. If you reach down to our junior high it’s in the high 80 percent, even down in our elementary, so good things are happening here in Shelby and our kids work hard. I think the one thing that gets lost in all this is that these kids went to camp this summer, they were here four days a week in the summer, for two days they’re doing speed and agility, for two days they’re lifting. They’re here four days a week at 7 a.m. lifting during the season. They’re good kids. I think in the end of it all, what we’re trying to promote and what everyone would like to promote is participation for our youth. The alternative, as we all know, is that they could be out doing something that’s not good, so we’re glad we have them with us.”
MTN Sports: Shelby has prided itself on athletic prowess for years, winning district, divisional and state championships in a variety of sports. When the community learned of its decision to reclassify, was there hesitation from the proud Class B fanbase?
Crump: “Oh absolutely. Not only Class B, but Shelby was Class A at one time. It’s a different situation when you have families of one or two kids where families had, small families had seven kids back in the day. There’s just not as many kids. You look at the Shelby population, the population of the community hasn’t dropped that much, it’s just the number of kids that families are having.”
White: I’m hoping there’s a lot of trust in what we’re trying to do, how we see the future. There’s always going to be that, the people that hold onto it from 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years. It’s just isolated. Change happens. Change happens in every part of the world and it just happened to affect Shelby right now.”
MTN Sports: The loudest concerns, at least initially, regarding Shelby’s move revolved around the Coyotes’ second-place finish in the 2017 Class B playoffs, which saw the team win its first three games by a combined seven points, the first two on Wyatt Brusven field goals and the third on a late touchdown and Brusven point-after-touchdown, before Eureka routed the Coyotes 47-7 in the Class B state championship game. Was it fair for a runner-up in a higher classification to drop down to the next level?
White: “I think the biggest thing is that we started the process more than two years ago. Going into last season we already knew that we were going to petition to move down. Last season was a magical year. I think, what did we win our three playoff games by a total of seven points? I can’t say we were dominant there, but moving down was something in the back of our minds. We went through all the proper channels locally and as far as at the MHSA level and we did the right thing. That was just how it went. Sorry people don’t understand that.”
MTN Sports: Once the Coyotes opened the fall schedule, there were new apprehensions surrounding the newest 8-Man club. Shelby picked up nine players that hadn’t played in prior years, bringing the roster total to 35, though only 14 were upperclassmen – six seniors and eight juniors – raising questions as to why the Coyotes weren’t on the 11-Man field with that kind of participation.
White: “I think two things, I think that, again as a coach, I’m in the hallways every day. I’m working on kids for next year. I have freshmen that didn’t play this year that we’re trying to get to 100 percent of our kids playing. That’s just how I approach it. As far as the numbers, you know, we have a couple kids that are freshmen this year that played seven JV games. They had brothers last year that when they were freshmen, I think it was three (JV games) and they went a whole month without football because other teams couldn’t field a JV team. At times we couldn’t field a JV team. I think that’s important to develop those kids and again, I think it goes back to participation. We’re looking to get kids to participate. Would we have been able to play 11-Man both ways this year? Absolutely. But next year, it would have been a different story and the year after would have been a different story, so we tried to look at the big picture. Again, we have nine extra kids. We were anticipating about 26 kids out for football, which is consistent of where others are at, but those things happen, too.”
MTN Sports: The third, though certainly not final, argument from those opposing Shelby’s drop points to the program down the road in Fairfield. The perennial Class B power continually ranks near the bottom of enrollment in the classification, yet remains on the 11-Man fields while many others – the likes of Shelby, Choteau, Joliet, Forsyth, Rocky Boy, Lodge Grass, St. Labre and, in prior years, Chinook and Fort Benton – dropped to the lower classification. If the Eagles can make it work, why can’t others?
White: “I don’t know for sure. I think that, obviously, Les does a good job down (in Fairfield). I think that they’ve gotten a strong tradition. I think they’ve been in the playoffs 15 straight years. This might be the first time since the early 1990s that Shelby has made it two or three years in a row. So there’s a little bit of tradition and every community is different.”
MTN Sports: There appears to be no perfect answer to Montana’s dwindling enrollments, particularly in smaller Class B towns. Shelby is only the latest in a long line of Class B schools having undergone change, with some, like Libby, actually moving up to Class A. While numbers continue to fluctuate, administrators are monitoring enrollment projections, preparing for the next potential change, even years down the road.
Crump: “Fortunately, I think we have great coaches, a great athletic department and they have a lot of kids come out for all of our sports. I don’t see us dropping below that 103 mark. I see us remaining (Class B by the numbers), if you look at our projections, we actually do get back over that 130 mark with our kindergarten, first grade, second grade and third grade. If all of those kids stay until they’re freshmen through seniors, we will finally break that 130 mark again. There are other things going on that are pretty positive here in Shelby right now, there are some businesses coming in, there’s some recent influx in money and companies, so there’s an opportunity for more people to come into Shelby. If that happens and we get above that 130 mark, you’ll see us playing 11-Man again. We’ll have to wait and see how that pans out.”
White: “I don’t know, I think you’re right, I don’t think there’s a perfect situation. Les and I talked a few years ago about maybe trying to get some 9-Man going. I know Scott King over in Malta was interested in it. Class C schools control that vote at the MHSA level and right now I don’t know that they’re interested in that. I know, and you would have to get confirmation, but the MHSA isn’t interested in going four levels — 6-Man, 8-Man, 9-Man and 11-Man — so we would have to go 6-Man, 9-Man and 11-Man. I’m wondering if there will be some talk about it, if this will cause some chatter. I don’t want it to in the sense that it’s a bad thing, but I know more schools are getting smaller, especially up here on the Hi-Line. It was us this year that got all the blowback, next year it will be somebody else. We’re just going to do what’s best for Shelby, what’s best for our kids and we’re moving forward.”
MTN Sports: As for other programs considering a classification change, Crump believes the most important thing is beginning the process in your own back yard.
Crump: “First thing, I think you need to communicate with your community. You don’t want to make that knee-jerk reaction. I felt like if we would have gone 8-Man in our first opportunity to do that, I think it would have been a knee-jerk reaction. We needed to get our community behind it before we made the decision. That doesn’t mean everyone is behind it, there are still going to be people out there in the community that say, ‘We should be playing 11-Man.’ That’s something that we have to deal with, but we did have the conversation, talked with our community, talked with our board for a year before we made the decision. That would be my advice.”