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COMMENTARY: Flint Creek Coop may be in jeopardy

NOTE - an update to this story and the postponement of the MHSA review meeting November 21, 2022 in Helena can be found HERE.

In a week where teams are fighting for titles, the Flint Creek Titans may be fighting for their very lives.

Every three years coop programs must get approval to continue their merger and 2022 in such a year for the Titans. In 2016 and 2019, the merger between Granite and Drummond high schools for football was approved by decree of then Executive Director Mark Beckman.

But following the 2022 season, new Executive Director Brian Michelotti decided that the Flint Creek Coop needed to be reviewed. That review will take place Monday afternoon in Helena at the Helena School District Building (1325 Poplar St, Helena, MT 59601) at 1:45 p.m.

The reason: Participation numbers.

“The Executive Director in the past, on multiple occasions, has had our Executive Board review coops with higher participation numbers,” explained Michelotti in a text exchange with the Flint Creek Courier Friday and Saturday. “Coops are approved and denied on participation numbers.”

To be clear, both Michelotti and Drummond Superintendent Dean Phillips made it clear that no decision has been reached as yet and that this process is an tri-annual review. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, except this time Flint Creek will have to get the approval of a seven-person board and not just the Executive Director.

But why now?

That’s the question.

By the numbers…

In a phone interview Friday, Michelotti expressed that he had concerns after the Titans had beaten Scobey in Drummond in 2020 for their third title in four years. “There were a lot of guys in the sidelines in that game,” he observed. “And if the numbers are there that each school can operate its own team, then that’s what should happen.”

While it may have seemed like the Titans had a wealth of rostered players – and Scobey likely felt that way as well in their 44-6 loss to Flint Creek – appearances are deceiving. Flint Creek had just 19 players on that roster, below the 8-man average of 21.

When the Flint Creek Coop was formed in 2014 it had 32 players on its roster as the squads from Drummond and Granite joined forces. At the time the two schools had a combined student population of 133, meaning that 24.06% of students played football.

But that roster tally and student body count have never been that high since. In fact it’s dropped significantly.

Data from the MHSA and MaxPreps websites.

When the Titans claimed their first crown in 2017, they had 20 players drawn from a pool of 117, decreases of 14% and 38%, respectively. In that year Granite dropped to its lowest point of just 44 students in its high school. In their second title year of 2018, they had 19 players from a pool of 126, or just 15.08% of the student body.

“There were years that Granite’s program was in serious trouble,” observed MHSA Hall of Fame Coach Jim Oberweiser of the co-op, who served as the Flint Creek Head Coach from 2014-2016. “They were gonna co-op with someone, Deer Lodge or Anaconda or us (Drummond), and they chose us. A few years later Drummond was in trouble. I don’t think either program could have survived without the other.”

Both Drummond and Granite and have essentially leveled off their enrollments since, with the occasional blips of larger and smaller enrollments. Current projections for the 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 years already indicate an immediate drop in the coop's student body.

So with numbers fluctuating, even considering years in which there might be a larger enrollment slip through the student pipeline, again I ask, “Why now?”

Success breeds success…

When the Flint Creek Coop was formed it was fortunate to have a wealth of talented coaches on hand to lead the way. Montana Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jim Oberweiser and his assistant JC Holland came from Drummond, while Granite contributed Mike Cutler. Over the first three seasons the team was 18-8 and ended each campaign with a first-round playoff loss.

When Cutler and Holland took the reins in 2017, they managed to compile a record of 44-4 that included three state titles. They garnered tons of interest from fans and the media, but the roster barely wavered. According to MaxPreps the Titans had roster numbers of 20, 19, 21, and 19 – all below the average roster size of 21 for the 8-man game.

Likewise, school enrollment stayed relatively unchanged as well with the exception of 2018. Starting in 2017 the Coop had student bodies of 117, 126, 117, and 115.

So with student body and roster numbers well within norms, again I have to ask, “Why now?”

Buns in the oven…

Part of the problem for Flint Creek is that in recent years the roster has ballooned yet again. During the 2022 season the Titans had 29 players on its clipboard. And while projections show that there may be another swell coming through the enrollment snake, it too shall pass.

It’s also fair to point out here that no all of those enrolled are willing players. To date Flint Creek has not had a female player and there are presently none in the lower levels that appear interested. So that further depletes the potential player base from which to draw more athletes.

“Because of our success, we are a high-profile coop that has attracted some attention, and some opposition,” said Phillips in an email to the Courier Thursday. “We are well under the 130 student enrollment cap and will continue to be with projected numbers, and our roster size is within reason and again projected to decline.

“The third criteria is success. So yes, we are a successful football team, but there are so many other factors that contribute to our success, not just student numbers and roster size. If we were a 5-5 team, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We are well within the acceptable numbers, following all the rules, and being successful.

“Now all of that extremely hard work by both of our communities may be taken away. It is frustrating that this could possibly happen.”

Stretching a dollar…

So if the MHSA Executive Board were to dissolve the Flint Creek Coop, what would that look like for the communities of Drummond and Philipsburg?

For starters, they are going to have buy all new gear. Anything they have for the varsity level is at least a decade out of date and likely outside of today safety specifications. Estimates by both Phillips and Granite Athletic Director JB Chandler are that it would cost each school a minimum of $20,000 each, and that’s before you include coaches salaries, bus transportation, insurance, trainers and field maintenance just to name a few.

Those are all costs that in today’s very budget conscience world are shared by the two schools.

“Philipsburg needs this coop,” said Philipsburg Schools Superintendent Tom Gates in an email to the Courier. “Reasons of pros vastly out way the cons and student are at the heart of this decision not adults with titles attached to their names.

“Rural school district must start collaborating with each other just like our own two (do) or the future of education in rural towns will be affected. Students will lose the skills of work ethic, respect, responsibility and grit all skills learned outside classroom in the extracurricular arena.”

You get a ribbon and you get a ribbon and you get a ribbon…

Cutler (Head Coach 2017-2020) was far more blunt about what the reasons for these might be for the actions being taken by the MHSA. When asked if this might be more about hurt feelings and resentment about the success of the Titans, he responded with, “I think its crap that it’s happening. I think you’re right, the right people barked at the right people (in the MHSA).

Cutler previously served on the MHSA Board of Directors as the Class C President, handing the same kinds of requests regarding moving between divisions.

“Let me take you back to when I was on the board (2016). This thing about co-ops came up all the time and the criterion at that point was that success was never a part of it. The MHSA wasn’t going to get involved in programs that were bad. That’s a ‘you’ problem, not a ‘we’ problem. That was our stand. Success was never a part of our decision making when a team wanted to move or when some of the native teams would petition to stay in 8-man when they had a bunch of students one year (a bubble).

“Like it or not, the world we live in now is ‘everybody’s a champion, everyone gets a (expletive) ribbon. Everybody’s a winner.”

Again, Michelotti claims that it’s about participation numbers, not success rate.

Cutler also gave an example of how teams that are unsuccessful at training their players and encouraging student participation are allowed to float up and down divisions.

“Deer Lodge (Powell County) has 150 or 160 students and their program struggles,” explained Cutler, “but they (MHSA) allow them to continue to play 8-man. Whereas, Flint Creek has had a run of a very successful program and now they’re trying to cut it down and dissolve it. So it makes total sense to me in the world we live in and I think its crap.

“Obviously the right people have talked to the MHSA and the bottom line is it’s gonna kill Philipsburg.”

Cutler shares that sentiment with current Granite Athletic Director JB Chandler,

“If they (MHSA) dissolve the co-op, it will likely mean the death of the football program in Granite,” Chandler said. “I don’t see kids wanting to play 6-man football. To me, 6-man is basically basketball on grass. It takes the bigger kids out of it and kids like me just wouldn’t play.”

To this writer it seems an odd thing to punish a program for promoting success. The Flint Creek Titans have hired skilled coaches that taught the game of football to its players better than most. And while doing so, they have inspired as many players as possible to participate in their program base on an opportunity to contribute and be part of something successful. And they do it all while remaining well under the Class C cap of 130 students per program.

Breaking that up make no sense to me, no matter how many feelings get hurt along the way.

In the final analysis, the Flint Creek Titans have had one hell of a run. After three years of first round exits from the postseason (2014-2016; years in which they had significantly higher numbers than they do now and far less success), they’ve amassed an impressive record of three state titles, a runner up finish and two quarterfinal exits over the past six seasons.

But even the casual observer knows that that kind of success doesn’t last forever, and with a dwindling number of available players in the junior high ranks in coming years, that success will be challenged in the very near future. The Titans will likely remain competitive, but claiming another state title come late November will become more of a Herculean feat.

So when numbers don’t add up and decisions are being made on feelings and soft data, you have to wonder just who’s been talking to who. It might just all come down to whom you play golf with in warmer days of summer.

How can you make your voice heard? Here are some points of contact for those wishing to express their opinion on the potential breakup of the Flint Creek Co-Op:

MHSA Office Phone: 406-442-6010

Members of the MHSA Staff can be reached by email by CLICKING HERE.

Monday’s Coop Evaluation Meeting: Helena School District Building (1325 Poplar St, Helena, MT 59601) at 1:45 p.m.

NOTE - This story was edited after it's initial publication when additional data became available. That data was added to graphics and to the story content.


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