As schools shrink, Friday night lights rivals join forces
High school football season is about to begin in Montana.
Here’s a great story about rivals becoming teammates at two Montana Schools by the Missoulian’s AJ Mazzolini:
DRUMMOND – The veteran coach paced the sidelines of the 80-yard pitch tucked between a four-lane highway and a hillside with modest inset bleachers. While his eyes followed the play, his feet followed his Trojans’ march toward the goal line yard by yard.
For each stride Jim Oberweiser took, 35 football players mirrored it behind him along Drummond High School’s turf, still thawing in the late-morning sun. The huddled mass of shoulder pads and helmets flanked the 22-year coach, an impressive and intimidating show of unison from a school and a town on the verge of its first state football championship.
Mere moments separated Drummond from a Class C 8-man title, an eventual 48-8 drubbing of Big Sandy on this mid-November day in 2003.
“I’ve spoke with some folks who say, ‘I just couldn’t believe that when I went to this really small town to watch this football game that you had football kids lined up from, gosh, 20-yard line to 20-yard line,’ ” Oberweiser recounted.
That victory, the 11th in a streak that reached 45 straight and spanned three state championships, marked the beginning of an 8-man football dynasty in the town of just more than 300 people 50 miles east of Missoula.
But barely a decade later – those players long ago graduated – far fewer Trojan uniforms stood guard over the sidelines. A once burgeoning roster had shrunk to 18 boys, hardly enough for a full practice. With an estimated dip to as low as 13 bodies for the 2014 season, the Trojans made a choice nearly unthinkable 10 years prior.
Last November, following a 6-3 campaign, the Drummond School District filed the paperwork with the Montana High School Association to create a partnership with its chief geographic rival – the nearby Granite High Prospectors of Philipsburg.
With an MHSA stamp of approval, the Flint Creek Titans were born, a team separated by 27 miles and decades of rival history.
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Though Montana’s population has swelled above the 1 million mark in recent years, rural residents in the Treasure State occupy a smaller percentage of the population than they once did. U.S. Census data shows what was once a 56-44 population percentage split in favor of smaller, rural communities has flipped the other direction in the last 50 years.
As school enrollments continue to diminish in these areas, sporting opportunities grow scarcer, MHSA Executive Director Mark Beckman said.
More and more schools are falling into the MHSA’s smallest classification, that of Class C. Home to institutions with 119 students or fewer, the number of Class C schools has increased 10 percent to 106 just since autumn of 2006.
That’s 106 out of 179 total MHSA member schools.
By consequence, the number of co-ops has climbed as well as smaller schools pool their resources to field athletic teams. Beckman counted 172 co-ops across all sports – 29 of which are football, by far the most and nearly doubling that of girls’ basketball (16). The total number of co-ops is up from 144 when he counted five or six years ago.
“That’s concerning for the schools, but I think it’s also a good thing because these students at schools with a dwindling enrollment still have the opportunity to participate in these sports and still stay in their local school,” Beckman said. “And when you have to put 11, eight or six out (for football), it’s even more difficult.”
The combined enrollment of schools forming an 8-man football co-op cannot exceed the upper boundary of a regular Class C institution (119 students) by more than 10 percent. For this fall, Drummond and Philipsburg predict 131 combined students – exactly the cutoff point for a co-op – though that number is expected to shrink to 121 for the 2015-16 school year.
Enrollment drops have granted no immunities in athletic reorganization in Montana, though the western-most region of the state is only feeling the squeeze more recently. While Big Sky Country has supported 6-man football since 1982, the high-action open-field discipline didn’t reach the area until 2010 when enough schools dipped low enough to warrant the game.
“The West (half of Montana) is behind the times as far as this movement,” said Mike Cutler, Philipsburg School District superintendent and former Granite head football coach. “The Hi-Line has just been decimated.”
The Philipsburg native previously taught and coached 8-man at Denton in north-central Montana. Denton now co-ops with Stanford and Geyser for football.
Cutler, along with Philipsburg’s Wally Stanghill, will continue coaching with head man Oberweiser and Drummond’s JC Holland for Flint Creek. He deferred to Oberweiser’s experience for the head spot, though.
“Jim’s been coaching for 1,050 years,” Cutler said with a chuckle.
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Drummond has nabbed the headlines and trophies in recent years with five state firsts since ’03, but Philipsburg has the deeper history when it comes to football.
High atop Philipsburg Elementary, “1896” is carved into the gray stone monument that is the original Granite High School to represent the school’s opening. Not long after, though the exact year varies depending who you talk to around Philipsburg, the Prospectors fielded their first football team.
There were lean years and there were squads that folks in town still discuss in earnest, said Sam Brown, 67, who played football at the school through his junior season in 1963. That last campaign in a Pros uniform for Brown falls under the latter.
“We went undefeated, scored hundreds and hundreds of points to our opponents’ very few,” Brown recalled, a spot of pride still present in his voice.
The game has changed dramatically since those days, noted Ron Paige, 78, a Granite grad from 1954. Football itself has always been important to the small town, though.
“Football was such a big part of our lives even then,” Paige said, dusting off memories buried beneath decades of living. “We didn’t have leather helmets – I’m not that old – but just one little plastic bar around the teeth.
“And unfortunately (with the nearby mines), the field was made out of manganese tailings,” Paige continued. “You didn’t want to get tackled because you had about a 50-50 chance of getting blood poisoning.”
It wasn’t until 1979, though, that the Pros made their first and only state title game appearance. A 56-25 defeat to Richey gave Philipsburg its best state finish.
A half-hour down Montana Highway 1, Drummond’s program was born a decade earlier in 1969. That year, to help fill out an inaugural roster and stir up more interest in the sport, Drummond opened the field to eighth graders from its middle school.
Mike Bradshaw, a 1973 graduate of the school who recently retired as Drummond head girls’ basketball coach after 36 seasons, joined the team for his first of five years in a Trojans uniform.
“We didn’t have the program developed like they had recently and those first few years we took our lumps,” Bradshaw laughed about it now. “We practiced on an old hay field down here, played our games up at the (current) field. But it was all dirt at that time.”
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It didn’t take long for the one-sided affairs between the two schools to begin creeping toward equilibrium. By the time Coach Oberweiser took the whistle in the early ’80s, the rivalry was well-established.
“You always want to circle one or two games on the calendar and you always want to be building to those goals,” Oberweiser said. “And one of those goals that we always had was to make the playoffs, first and foremost.
“The second would be to defeat Granite.”
Little changed by the time Coach Cutler, then a running back, came through the halls of Granite High, though he was coy with the details.
“I got into some trouble with Drummond kids, to put it that way,” Cutler said with a sly smile. The 1988 grad also set a still-standing state record with 10 touchdowns in a game to beat Drummond in 1987 before going on to play at the University of Montana-Western.
The rivalry cooled by the late ’90s as Drummond found its stride and Philipsburg began to lose footing. As the Trojans’ trophy collection ballooned, the games against P-burg started to mean less and less to the players.
“I feel like when I got into high school (in 2002), when I was a freshman, it was still there,” said Chase Reynolds, Drummond’s record-setting running back and a future Montana Griz standout and NFL pro. “We became so dominant – not being cocky or anything – but it’s almost like it wasn’t a rivalry anymore.”
Which is too bad, the 2006 graduate lamented.
“Any time you have a rivalry, it’s a game that you can get fired up over,” he said. “I look back to when I played for the Griz; playing the Bobcats, you look forward to that game. It’s a special game with fans and people getting together.
“It’s more than a football game and that’s the same way in high school. It’s good for the soul, I think.”
The Trojans have made the state playoffs in all but one season dating back to 1998. The year before marked the Prospectors’ last trip to the postseason.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Philipsburg doesn’t have the tradition of football,’ ” said Granite County Sheriff Scott Dunkerson, a 1989 Granite grad and current Drummond resident. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up a few years. It’s been going for such a long time and that’s the sad part of it, to see that disappear.”