BUTTE – There’s no denying the longstanding history between the Anaconda and Butte Central high schools. It’s a rivalry born from two of the cities most responsible for the growth of Montana.
But fast forward to 2019 and the possibilities of two rivals combining forces to form a co-op football team is a reality that is hard for some to comprehend.
“I think both communities have a real pride in their tradition, a pride in what the programs have been about. It’s people having a hard time, including myself as the coach. We have a hard time, at least I do, giving that up,” said Butte Central school director and head football coach Don Peoples.
“I lived it. I mean, I’m from Anaconda. I wasn’t born here, but I’ve been raised here my whole life. I completely understand the other side of it. I mean, it’s a culture shock, it really is,” said Anaconda school board trustee Blake Hempstead.
The logistics of the whole scenario is another factor in what keeps this co-op from being a done deal — factors like travel costs, playing time, the coaching staff, and team names. Butte Central is a private Catholic high school, Anaconda is public. But this decision ultimately comes down to what the kids at both high schools want, and that message was well-received in both community meetings on Wednesday night.
“We’ve had a lot of pros and cons from the kids. In fact, one of the suggestions (Wednesday) was that there needs to be a players-only meeting. Our team chaplain, Father Kirby Longo, is going to moderate a meeting with the kids later this week, to get, really, a sense of their pulse,” said Peoples.
A decrease in student population in both schools has given way to some serious safety concerns.
“Attrition is the only reason we’re having this conversation,” Hempstead said. “Safety is huge on us.”
Anaconda, which plays Class B 11-man football, finished its 2018 season with just 18 active players on the roster. Butte Central, which plays in Class A, was in that same ballpark.
“There was one time we were playing in Florence, and my running back, Dylan Skocilich, he’s a senior, he got onto the field, got hit, got knocked out, came off the sideline and was put in the next play, because we needed him to play football,” said Anaconda’s Dylan Smith.
Time is not one either school’s side when it comes to this tough decision. The Montana High School Association has a Feb. 1 deadline for both schools to come to an agreement on whether they will form this co-op team in the fall of 2019. Until then, each school will continue to hold community meetings so that opinions can be expressed openly, so the right decision is made for both sides.
If both schools agree to pursue the football co-op, the MHSA would still have to grant final approval after an analysis of enrollment and participation numbers. Any co-op would be formed on a three-year basis and could only be dissolved if both schools agreed to a dissolution.