Rimrock High sophomore Lewy Rutan admits the first football practices for the Raiders dragged this fall.
With only six players in pads, he and everyone else knew they couldn’t field a team, even at the 8-man level. Low turnout forced Rimrock to cancel its first two games. Energy at practices sagged. The season was in jeopardy.
But a last-ditch effort to combine the programs at Rimrock and Greenleaf into a single team saved Rimrock’s season. And with six players at Greenleaf’s first practice, it likely saved the Grizzlies’ season, too.
“It’s adrenaline and being happy, acting like a little kid who gets to go to school for the first time,” Rutan said of learning the co-op saved his team’s season. “For me and (Rimrock’s) Devin Morrison, football means life for us at school. It’s a big deal emotionally and keeps your head up in school. The only reason I do good in school is for sports.”
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The new co-op program starts its five-game season at 3 p.m. Friday at Camas County High. Rimrock players caravanned for the hour and a half drive from Bruneau to Greenleaf on Thursday, marking their third practice together and a crash course in Greenleaf’s offensive and defensive playbook.
Rimrock and Greenleaf are far from alone though.
The decline of rural towns across Idaho threatens 8-man programs around the state. Mullan will not field a team this fall. Clark Fork successfully pleaded for players on its Twitter and Facebook pages two weeks before the start of the season. And Mackay, a powerhouse program that won six 11-man state titles in a row from 1996-2001, will play a JV-only schedule this year.
“It’s really hard to see,” said Jack McKelvey, Mackay’s athletic director and football coach with eight state titles to his name, second most in Idaho High School Activities Association history. “I don’t want to say it’s depressing, but it’s not much better than that just because of what we used to have. And it’s just gone.”
The threat to all those schools comes from a common source — declining enrollment. Each town has its own specific cause, whether it’s a shuttered lumber mill, a tapped-out mining claim or the automation of farm labor. But the trend remains the same.
Of the 50 schools playing 8-man football in Idaho, 36 have shrunk in the past six years, according to IHSAA records. Thirty of those schools have lost 10 percent or more of their student body. And some have absorbed significant blows, like Clark Fork (-51 percent), Meadows Valley (-50.6 percent), Culdesac (-50.6 percent), Greenleaf (-49.2 percent) and Rimrock (-42 percent).
The majority of 8-man programs remain in strong shape. But the trend leaves many across the state teetering on the edge of three unsavory options: combine with a neighboring school, revive a 6-man proposal that died after one year or drop football altogether.
LESSER OF THREE EVILS
Greenleaf and Rimrock plan to combine forces for this fall only. But they can look around the state for successful models.
Midvale and Cambridge form Tri-Valley. Meadows Valley teamed up with Salmon River. Culdesac and Nezperce created Highland in northern Idaho.
Murtaugh and Hansen, separated by 10 miles, created the state’s most recent co-op, incorporating under the Murtaugh banner in 2013 after the Red Devils forfeited their final four games in 2012.
Murtaugh Athletic Director Clayton Nebeker said instead of worrying whether he could field a team each week or fretting that throwing a freshman into the fire against seniors would chase him away from the sport, the combined team has fielded a JV-only squad each year. It fields 27 players this fall, a number unthinkable for either school alone.
“I would say there has been a little bit of concern, because we play all of our games in Murtaugh, we wear Murtaugh colors, we have all that,” Nebeker said. “But when it comes down to it, everybody is in favor of getting the kids playing on the field. That’s what it all comes down to.”
Of the 45 current 8-man programs, only 14 reside 30 or more miles from another 8-man team. But tradition and pride keep schools from joining until they have no other option.
Mackay opted to play a JV-only schedule with 10 players, including six freshmen, instead of joining forces with Butte County in Arco, 26 miles down Highway 93. McKelvey admits the two schools have discussed joining, but he wants to preserve as many opportunities for players from Mackay as long as he can.
“And we’re proud here,” he added. “We’re trying to hang on to something that’s very important to this community, to the school, over the years.”
Nebeker said that same pride kept Murtaugh and Hansen from joining years earlier. Once they did, he said, the players proved him wrong.
“People talked about how we were big rivals with Hansen and all that stuff. These kids don’t know anything about that,” Nebeker said. “... The kids automatically got along. It was never an issue to get them to play together, to be friends with each other. I think the parents had more problems than the kids did.”
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Small-school programs struggling to field 8-man teams have vexed Idaho schools for years. So in 2013, the IHSAA started a pilot project for 6-man football, which features a smaller field and all six players as eligible receivers.
Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas sponsor 6-man football. Texas is home to 138 6-man teams, and Idaho played 6-man football in the 1940s and ’50s. But after some initial interest, only Camas County in Fairfield and Clark County in Dubois joined the 6-man project, which petered out after its first year.
“Honestly, when it came out, I thought this is great,” IHSAA Executive Director Ty Jones said. “Talking to people, we thought we could foresee the time when you had an 8-man league and a 6-man league. And it just never came to fruition. The co-op was a bigger thing for them.”
Rimrock coach Alex Meyers suggests more schools might consider a 6-man option with enrollment continuing to dwindle. Greenleaf coach Jeff Metcalf said his school would jump at it if offered. But Jones said no serious discussions have started since the pilot project ended after 2013.
With the continuing decline of 8-man schools, Jones said he expects more schools to join forces like Rimrock and Greenleaf, or for some smaller schools to join larger programs, like Rimrock sending players to Mountain Home.
Jones said he’s alerted schools the IHSAA plans to take a long look at how teams fit in each classification this spring. That could include changing how many students a school needs to fit into a classification, or possibly a model based on recent success instead of enrollment.
“Literally everything is going to be on the table,” Jones said. “There is not one major thing we’re looking at we’re changing to this. We just want to be ahead of the game because we know things are changing.”
None of that will help Greenleaf and Rimrock this season. The co-op will compete as Greenleaf, wearing Greenleaf jerseys and helmets. But the team will sport green socks for Rimrock’s colors and play Rimrock’s homecoming game Sept. 25 in Bruneau in Rimrock uniforms. Greenleaf hosts the other three home games.
Metcalf and Meyers tried to cram as much of the playbook into their players’ head Thursday before the season opener Friday. For players like Rutan and Greenleaf senior Ben Stinson, who became friends around the pig pens at the Owyhee County Fair this summer, they’ll do whatever it takes to just play.
“I think we’re bonding really well and this timeline thing, it’s scary at first,” Stinson said. “But then reality sets in that we’re going to be just fine. We’re all in this together.”