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April 8, 2014
Northwest Montana A Conference


My thoughts on Anaconda moving to Class B

On Monday, head coaches representing every Anaconda High sport met with AHS principal Paul Furthmyre, AD and vice Principal Shawn Hansen, SD10 Superintendent Dr. Tom Darnell and the board of trustees in order to consider a motion by Montana High School Association requesting the school to move to Class B. The move would take effect in the 2015-16 school year.

I reported on the meeting at kana580.com (click here for the article) but it’s no secret I think the school should consider moving to the lower classification for a number of reasons.

1), It’s time. We are competing against bigger school in the Southwestern A, and the only reason we aren’t as bad off in terms of numbers against the majority of schools is because the likes of Hamilton, Corvallis and Stevensville are fielding huge soccer and cross country teams (currently, Dillon, Anaconda and Butte Central are among the minority in Class A who do not offer soccer for either boys or girls). According to AHS head football coach Bob Orrino, we have approximately 30 kids out for football each year. I can confirm Dillon had nearly 60 on their JV-Varsity teams last year, not counting members of the freshmen team numbering similar to Anaconda’s entire program.

2), We need to stop fooling ourselves. Forget the recent successes we’ve had in the classification, those are on a case by case basis. Our girls’ basketball and volleyball teams from 2006-2011 were an anomaly. Sure they were among the best teams in the state regardless of classification, but so was Fairfield this year after completing a 105-game winning streak. Could they continuously compete against teams of larger enrollment? Possibly. But that success couldn’t be sustained.

3), I’m one of the biggest supporters of Copperhead athletics and love where we play. The SW-A has some great administration and coaching staffs, including our own. With that being said, it’s just not fair to our kids to keep fooling ourselves. We need to move to where our school can compete on a level playing field AS A WHOLE and not by using a case-by-case basis.

I will say I loved the passion by each coach stating their individual cases on Monday night. All were respectful of one another and expressed their own concerns in a civil, professional manner. I wish all of the issues hitting our school board could be conducted the same way. There’s passion, then there’s misguided anger.

I probably shouldn’t have even been at the meeting, but again I felt it necessary to say my peace. And I appreciate the coaches for bearing with what I had to say.

Being a numbers guy, I though it necessary to compare Anaconda to one of the two recent former Class A teams which dropped down to Class B due to the same concerns we are having. I used Bigfork as that model. Here’s what I found.

One of the last teams to move from Class A to Class B was Bigfork in 2009-10. But their collective downfall across the board was seen for years. Sure they had some individual success, but their team records were always at or near the bottom of the Northwestern A. They were competing with schools which had almost twice their enrollment, and although there were scattered wins here and there, sustained success was not realistically attainable.

In the case of football, Anaconda and Bigfork last met in Anaconda during the 2005-06 season. Anaconda, a 3-5 football team that year, beat Bigfork 21-7. The Vikings finished 1-7 overall that year, then went winless over the next three years with 0-7, 0-8 and 0-8 records before moving to their rightful classification. In 2009-10, the football team went a respectable 4-4, and immediately rebounded from embarrassing 30 and 40 point losses to division rivals. In 08-09, Bigfork was outscored 46.5 to 11.3. The year they moved, their scoring and defense improved dramatically. Although they still allowed 36.8 ppg, they also scored 24.9 ppg.

Then in 2010-11, they went 10-2 and won the Class B state championship. Four years leading up to their move they went 1-30. Five years since, 41-13. And that’s just in football.

In basketball, it was much of the same. The four year prior to the move the team recorded a 16-61 mark with the best record being 7-13 in 2005-06. Since, they’ve advanced to three state tournaments and placed twice going 98-24 over that span including a perfect 26-0 record and Class B state championship this season.

Anaconda is almost identical to the tough choice Bigfork made moving down a classification, but you can see what happens when a school plays against other schools of like enrollment.

Even if the goal isn’t to succeed like Bigfork has, it should be at least to give our student-athletes the opportunity to compete at a level comparable to their competition. Winning on the playing field breeds winning in the classroom. Like Shawn Hansen has always said, when the student athletes are competing at a high level outside of the classroom, his problems in terms of discipline, absenteeism and tardiness reduce significantly.

You thing Bigfork isn’t loving life competing against their level of enrollment and not against the like of Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Polson? Think again. Here’s a nice article speaking to their moving from The Flathead Beacon (click here to read the story).

Some against the move say the competition isn’t as good. I don’t agree. Sure, the crop of competition is lower due to the lower enrollments and larger amount of schools competing in the Class B (currently at 40), but when you get down to the final 8-10 teams, those squads, whether it any specific sport, would wipe the walls with teams one or two classifications higher on any given year.

What does change in lowering the classification is the sustainability of the programs. In Class AA or A, bigger class sizes allow for the ability to have more athletes to sustain success. In Class B or C, that probability lowers significantly. Sure there are some collectively better than others, but that goes back to the quality of life in each school district.

Unfortunately, our population is made up mostly of poverty level kids dealing with some tough childhood situations. Anaconda is tough, but even we have had some uphill battles with getting back on our feet from the Smelter closure. But we do what we can and offer some pretty amazing opportunities in terms of quality education and recreation. So why not level the playing field for our kids and coaches? Pit them against like enrollments in order to give us that ability to sustain a program? Why can’t we be the big fish, why must we always try to overachieve?

In terms of academic-athletic opportunities (now I just did football because it’s the easiest to track) for our students, football is very kind to small schools in Montana. I searched back four years in the Frontier and Big Sky Conference schools Montana and Montana State (last year and their recruiting classes this year), and the results are very encouraging.

Many will say the lower the classification, the harder it will be for our student-athletes to receive scholarships. However that just isn’t the case. Thanks to social media, collegiate coaches are more in tune with the smaller school now that ever.

Looking back at just football from the past four years, over approximately 869 players hailing from Montana were on Frontier rosters, and this doesn’t include Dickinson State (except for last year) or Jamestown College in North Dakota which loads up on small school athletes from eastern Montana. Of this 869, 319 came from schools from the Class B or C ranks. So in other words, 37 percent of all football players in Montana that go on to play college football in the Frontier Conference hail from Class B or C.

In terms of Montana and Montana State the ratio goes down slightly but is still significant. Last year, Montana had 26 locals on their roster with 2 players from small school. Montana State had 39 and 10. So 19 percent of all Montana football players at the Division I level are from smaller schools.

Lower the school into its correct classification won’t hurt their ability to earn a scholarship or even play at the next level in the least.

Being smaller doesn’t mean being worse. Let’s get that through our heads right off the bat. As soon as we can get that stigma out of our lexicon the sooner we can get back to a level playing field for our entire school district, not just on a case by case basis.

We’re all in this together, let’s hope we all make the right choice.

The School Board will vote on the issue on Wednesday night, if you have some input I advise you to attend no matter where you stand on the issue.

This entry was posted in Anaconda High School athletics, Opinion by Blake Hempstead's Copperhead blog. Bookmark the permalink

Anaconda High mulls MHSA request moving to Class B


On Monday, 10 Anaconda High School coaches representing football, volleyball, wrestling and boys’ and girls’ cross country, track and field, golf, tennis and basketball met in a public setting with School District 10 administration and board of trustees to determine if it behooves the school to move to Class B.

The meeting was prompted by Montana High School Association board members after their winter meeting. Now, Anaconda has until April 14 to determine whether or not the move will benefit or hinder the program.

If the school board elects to take the recommendation of MHSA, they will begin Class B competition in the fall of 2015. If not, they will remain the second-lowest institution in terms of enrollment in Class A instead of becoming the third- or fourth-largest in Class B.

Activities director and AHS vice principal Shawn Hansen took time to hear pros and cons from each head coach concerning the situation. Three coaches – Bob Orrino (football), Bill Hill (boys’ basketball) and Dustin Hanson (track and field) – said dropping to a level according to their own enrollment would benefit not only their specific sports, but the entirety of the school athletics program.

“We just can’t compete with our current numbers,” Orrino stated. “We have on average 30 kids in our football program when other teams we play against have 60 and above. It’s not a level playing field.”

“I’m a guy with a ton of pride, and I’ll tell you we need to move down,” Hill said.

On the other side of the argument, head girls’ basketball coach Jessica Shanafelt and volleyball coach Brianna Saltenberger stated they would hate to lose the competition by playing AA teams in non conference games and tournaments.

“My girls play better against better competition and play down to the lower competition,” Shanafelt said. “I would hate to lose it.”

According to MHSA, teams cannot play regular-season contests against teams two classifications higher. However, tournaments, such as the Missoula County High School tournament the Copperhead volleyball team has participated in for numerous years, along with multiple track and field, cross country, wrestling, golf and tennis tournaments, do not apply to that rule therefor would not be changed unless school official choose otherwise.

Mark Torney, AHS boys’ and girls’ golf coach, sided with not moving because it would significantly change his program. In classes B and C, golf is played in the spring rather than the fall season. However, Torney, realizing the enrollment concerns, was not naive to the entirety of all programs.

“It would affect us, but I’m for what’s best for the kids,” he said.

Head tennis coach Ann Morani and softball coach Dotsie Lucier did not agree with the move down in classification and wrestling coach Jerry Arneson and cross country coach Mary Wood  – although both concurred the change in classification would not significantly affect either sport – voted to stay in Class A.

AHS principal stated travel concerns should be a contributing factor to the decision, stating Anaconda would join either District 5 or 6 B depending on a MHSA study. However Dist. 5 would be the most probable with only five current members (Deer Lodge, Missoula Loyola, Florence, St. Ignatius and Ronan) while Dist. 6 has six (Whitehall, Jefferson Co. (Boulder), Broadwater Co. (Townsend), Sweet Grass (Big Timber), Three Forks and Manhattan).

“I’ve already instructed Shawn we need to cut $50,000 out of the budget for athletics whether we stay or go,” he said. “From talking with others, travel may increase if we move down.”

Last year, Anaconda’s football team traveled to Libby and Hardin on back to back weeks for non conference play – currently none of those trips would factor into the Class B divisional schedule.

The meeting was productive in terms of seeing where each coach stood on the matter, but was not a binding agreement. That will come during Wednesday’s school board meeting set for 6 p.m. in the administration building board room.

Classifying Schools in Montana: A Careful Balancing Act
Bigfork one of six high schools in new class this year

Members of the Bigfork football team make their way from the high school to the football field for practice. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

When a school switches to a different class, it’s a delicate balance of logistics, fairness and tradition. Parents find themselves traveling to unfamiliar towns for games, while kids say goodbye to some of their most respected competitors. Rivalries are lost and new traditions are born.

This year, Bigfork High School is one of six schools in Montana participating in a new class, having made the switch from Class A down to Class B. For those who have been here long enough, they remember the days when Bigfork was a force to be reckoned with in Class B athletics. Whether that’s the case again, after the school’s 11-year stint in Class A, remains to be seen.

In November of last year, the Montana High School Association recommended that Bigfork move down to Class B for athletics and activities because of declining enrollment. The enrollment guidelines for Class A are between 340 and 825 students. Class AA is 826 and above, Class B is 120-339 and Class C is 119 and below. Class C has the most schools, followed by Class B, then A and finally AA.

Last spring, Bigfork had 306 students, making it the second-smallest school in the league behind tiny Butte Central at 118, which is smaller than a number of Class C schools. Central, a private school, has repeatedly petitioned to stay in Class A and generally fares well in athletic competition. By comparison, fellow league members Columbia Falls and Belgrade each have more than 800 students.

Upon the MHSA’s recommendation to drop down a class, schools can petition to remain in their current league, like Butte Central. Bigfork’s school board voted not to petition. But if MHSA asks a school to move up, it’s mandatory. Now Bigfork goes from being one of the smallest in its class to one of the largest. Last year, it would have been the second-biggest program in Class B, behind 346-student Eureka.

Bigfork will compete in the 7-B District with Thompson Falls, Troy, Plains, Eureka and St. Ignatius. Northwestern A now consists of Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Polson, Libby and Ronan.

Before Bigfork moved up from Class B in 1998, the athletic department produced some of the top programs in the state, especially in girls tennis. The girls won eight straight state tennis titles and 11 out of 12, coming up short only in 1989. Since moving up a class, the team hasn’t won a single state title, nor has any team at the school except girls cross country – the girls won three straight Class A championships from 2001-2003.

It’s tough to measure how much of an athletic program’s success is influenced by its league, compared to how much is determined by extenuating circumstances. For one, sports are cyclical, with magical decade-long runs followed by extended droughts.

Also, the quality of competition often has more to do with your geography than the letter of your class. There are plenty of Class B football coaches out in the state’s eastern prairies who would gladly welcome a western A team to their field. Similarly, former Whitefish boys head coach Eric Stang said it’s not rare to find Class C basketball teams who could make playoff pushes in AA.

Stang, who grew up in Plains and has since coached high school and college basketball in more than 10 states, said Montana is a “kind of a different beast” when it comes to parity between classes. There are no inner-city teams, which often play at a near college level. Conversely, some of the best teams – especially in basketball and football – come from tiny rural areas, Stang said.

When C.M. Russell was the dominant Class AA football program in the early 1990s, Stang said many observers felt Class B Cut Bank could have given the Rustlers a run for their money.

“There’s not a lot to do out there but build traditions,” Stang said of rural areas. “They want to get the heck off of the ranch and do something for a couple of hours.”

Since there are “not as many distractions,” Stang said kids are more inclined to go to off-season camps and eagerly put in extra practice hours. In Plains, where movies were only shown on weekends and not much else happened on the other days, Stang said “open gym was kind of the place to go.”

“The gym was the hangout place for us,” Stang said. “The girls were all there too, and the boys. There just wasn’t a lot to do there.”

Because of these dynamics, Stang said there are powerhouse football and basketball programs that could play in a higher league, even if the rest of the teams at the school could not. For this reason, Stang thinks class distinctions in Montana shouldn’t be based solely on enrollment numbers. Instead, he believes, individual sports should be allowed to change classes.

“They need to change it up; they don’t need to have the same classification for every sport,” Stang said.

But Mark Beckman, MHSA’s executive director, said his organization has reviewed various options for school placement and “held very firmly” to the current system. Beckman feels that making decisions based on individual sports creates more problems than it solves. It would complicate scheduling and throw off the makeup of conferences, he said.

“It’s very problematic to have different teams participating in different classes,” Beckman said.

Beckman said declining enrollments statewide are “making the future hard to predict.” Under a system adopted in 2007, MHSA evaluates enrollment every two years and makes recommendations for class changes. But, since Beckman said the goal is “consistency and stability,” it’s best for a school not to bounce around classes too often.

Superior is no stranger to bouncing around. Since 1980, it has changed classes nine times, moving between Class B and C. Dan Lucier has been there for all of those 29 years – five as an assistant football coach and the last 24 as head coach. Last year, the team won its first state championship, claiming the Class C crown. This year, it’s back in Class B.

The league shifting doesn’t bother Lucier or the kids, he said. He’s had nearly equal success in both classes and, contrary to what people might think, he generally does better moving up to Class B. He believes that’s mostly due to the switch from eight-man football to 11-man, which creates new opportunities for his team. Lucier has actually petitioned the MHSA on numerous occasions for a nine-man league. In Montana, there’s currently six-man, eight-man and 11-man football.

“Is it a hardship? I’m going to say no,” Lucier said of moving between classes. “I think the biggest thing is it’s hard to hold a rivalry with somebody.”

Russ Kinzer, superintendent for Bigfork schools, said the school board considered the level of competition when deciding whether to switch leagues. He believes Class B is the appropriate fit, even if the mileage for road games is more.

“Class B is not going to be a pushover,” Kinzer said.

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