In football, at least, the Denver Prep League has gone the way of teenagers cruising up 15th and down 16th Streets downtown and ending up at North Denver's Scotchman Drive-In. It has gone the way of being able to shop at department stores — The Denver Dry Goods Company, May D&F and Joslin's — or playing baseball at Merchants Park. It has gone the way of attending the auto races at Lakeside Speedway.
After struggling for years to compete with suburban schools, the Denver Public Schools went their own way starting in 2006. They now play football at four Colorado High School Activities Association levels — 2A, 3A, 4A and 5A — and in six leagues. Only two schools, Denver East and Abraham Lincoln, play in the top classification, 5A. Yet in the recently completed regular season, only Class 4A Denver South (10-1) had a winning record and advanced to the postseason.
It has been 23 years since a DPS team won a state championship. Thomas Jefferson beat city rival Montbello in the 4A championship game in 1989, when that was the highest-enrollment classification.
There are reasons for hope, however, for DPS programs, where just getting players out for football has been a problem stretching back a decade or more. DPS coaches note that improvement in opportunities at the middle-school level are helping their programs build up numbers and become more competitive, and should start showing up in improved win-loss records at the varsity level in future years.
As one of the founders of a Denver Prep League program that has since added other backers, Kroenke Sports and Entertainment's charity arm provides $100,000 for middle-school sports in Denver. In addition to KSE — which owns the Avalanche, Nuggets, Mammoth and Rapids — the Broncos and Rockies also are involved. A "Broncos Futures" football program at middle-school levels has gotten younger players in the football pipeline for the high schools.
Deb Dowling-Canino, KSE's vice president for community relations, said she believes Denver "is the only city in which all professional sports are supporting inner-city school athletics."
In football, the 10 "Broncos Futures" teams, made up of seventh- and eighth-graders, represent the high schools and play a spring season.
"I think we're better numbers-wise since we started the Futures program four years ago," said John Andrew, director of middle-school athletics for the Denver schools. "They're seniors now."
He cited several senior star running backs from the 2012 season, including East's Shahid Hoover and South's Pete Williams and Tony Lindsay Jr., as products of the program..
"It's paying dividends," Andrew said. "We thought by this year one or two teams would be good."
Said South coach Tony Lindsay Sr.: "For such a long time, we couldn't compete up front. The suburban teams would just kill us. Now, we can compete across the lines. You have to block and tackle. You can do that now. The Futures program has really helped us."
It will also help if the city schools can keep their players in the city. The state's open-enrollment policy means residents of Denver can attend schools outside the district if there is room and if they're accepted by the schools. In past years, many top inner-city players have transferred to private-school powerhouses.
There are those, too, who believe a return to grouping all 10 football programs into a Denver Prep League, as it used to be, would help city schools be more competitive. Former George Washington head coach Steve Finesilver, who still is at the school and helping out in the program, said he plans on presenting a proposal to DPS athletic director Karen Higel calling for re-forming the league and adding two struggling programs from outside the city limits — Aurora Central and Adams City.
"The battle used to be DPS against the suburbs," Finesilver said. "The rationale for moving us apart was so we can be competitive at different levels. We had been together as a league for 90 some years, and now we're split into six leagues. The people I've talked to are disgruntled that we're not together anymore; we're no longer the Denver Prep League. But we are in everything else."
For the foreseeable future, though, DPS football programs will be trying to rebound, in their own leagues.
South carrying the banner
Denver South has been the pride of the DPS in football this fall, going 9-1 during the regular season and advancing with a first-round Class 4A playoff victory Friday night. A look at how the other schools finished.
Class 5A: Denver East was 4-6; Lincoln 3-7.
Class 4A: In addition to South, Montbello was 4-6, George Washington 3-8 and Kennedy 1-9.
Class 3A: Thomas Jefferson was 4-6; Denver North 1-9
Class 2A: Denver West was 3-6; Manual was 1-8
Breakdown of the DPS
Denver Post preps reporter Ryan Casey takes a school-by-school look at the DPS and its athletic programs: