Feedback on football co-op consumes Sheridan school board

A dozen community members share their thoughts

SHERIDAN—Sheridan and Twin Bridges school districts are weighing a potential football cooperative agreement that would combine the turnout athletes from both schools into a single, eight-man team in coming years.

“The board really wants to hear everybody’s concerns,” said chairman Bill Wood at the start of the Sheridan meeting on Tuesday, December 11. To accommodate this, speakers were limited to three minutes to voice their thoughts on the merger.

Superintendent Mike Wetherbee began by reading three comment letters that had been mailed in for consideration:

“Our school identity—our football—is only one of the supports that holds our community together,” wrote Sheridan junior Cade McParland, who has played for Sheridan’s schools for six years. “I think what was neglected was what is in the heart of the player. I only want to sing ‘Onward Panthers,’ after games.”

Another letter from Sheridan 6th grade teacher Sara Decker noted three primary concerns at the idea of the co-op. She worried about keeping students’ academically eligible with the proposed addition of a junior varsity schedule; wondered if there would be enough buses to tote athletes back and forth to practices, something Sheridan already struggles with regarding some of its after-school programs; and questioned whether a co-op would harm school pride.

“This topic is honestly bringing out the worst in our staff,” Decker wrote.

Opinions from the audience fell on both sides of the issue. 

Henry Sutton, an eighth grader who played for Sheridan’s middle school football team this year, said he thinks it provides a good opportunity.

“I’m up for it because it’s a great chance for us to do new things if we put the time and effort into it,” Sutton said. “I think we can learn a lot from them, and they can learn a lot from us.”

A cooperative is usually a three-year commitment, Wetherbee told the board and audience. He also presented some numeric projections for both student body and athletic turnout between both Twin Bridges and Sheridan for the next several years. 

In order to play eight-man football, a school or co-op must have a student body between 65 and 130. With a co-op, the combined student body of both schools must be within that range.

Wetherbee said the combined population of Twin Bridges and Sheridan high schools is projected to fall at about 131 in the 2019-2020 school year, 128 in 2021-2022, 116 in 2022-2023 and 119 in 2023-2024. 

“Of the 46 teams in Class C Eight-man, six are co-ops,” said Wetherbee. “Of those six, five made the playoffs.” That includes the Drummond/Granite Co-op, which won the 2018 8-man state title on November 17.

Some commenters noted they would have felt differently if the community had been more aware of the potential co-op from the beginning. 

Community member Beau Decker said he may have supported the idea, but as the issue stands, he doesn’t.

“I really want to know what we’re teaching our kids,” Decker told the board. “When things get tough, do you just quit? I would’ve probably had a different opinion if this had been handled differently. I’ve lost a lot of trust in the school board process.”

Sheridan player Henry Sutton’s father, Bobby, noted that with a greater number of athletes would allow players to focus on the positions that best suited them, rather than having to try and play every position at once. He also said playing on an 8-man team could get standout athletes noticed by college recruiters more easily.

“But if the board elects to go with the co-op, I think we should record those concerns and get people together to address those,” he said.

In the end, that’s exactly what the board decided to do.

“There’s no way we as a board can make a rational decision without answering some questions and figuring out these small details,” said chairman Wood. 

The board voted to create a committee to discuss and research topics from transportation and buses to a potential JV schedule, practice times to the cost of re-outfitting students with new uniforms.

The committee will also be on a time crunch, because a co-op proposal must be submitted to the Montana High School Association (MHSA) by February 1, 2019. So, the committee—which will consist of two board members, an athletic director, an administrator and a community member each from both Sheridan and Twin Bridges—will present its findings to the school board at its next regular meeting on January 8, where they will make their final vote on whether to submit the proposal to MHSA.

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