Posted 5/31/16 (Tue)
By Jody Michael
The Ray and Powers Lake schools are joining forces to establish a co-op football program that would begin varsity play in 2017.
Recent efforts by Ray to field its own team after Tioga dissolved their former Williams County co-op might not remain viable due to low participation numbers at the junior high level, head coach Steve Perdue and superintendent Ben Schafer said at a public input meeting Thursday.
“We were hoping we’d get a few more kids and keep it going as Ray Jay football, but it’s not looking likely,” Schafer said.
The agreement comes just in time for a junior high co-op to go into effect for this upcoming football season, pending approval by the North Dakota High School Activities Association (NDHSAA). The varsity team would take the field a year later.
Hanging on to a team
Ray had 18 students participate among the upper grade levels last year but has only 13 players in grades 6-9 now, Schafer said, which is barely enough to field a team in the nine-man league when considering the potential for attrition due to injuries.
“Two years ago, enrollment was moving up, and now we’re looking at this,” Perdue said. “We were thinking maybe we could build to 20. Now we’re going to the other direction.”
The NDHSAA voted in January to allow its smallest schools to instead field a six-man team in order to accommodate decreasing enrollment and participation numbers.
“If we have 12, 13 boys come out for varsity football, that would be the thing to do at that point,” Perdue said.
However, those teams would play independently from the NDHSAA, with no playoff system or even any assurance of finding a full schedule of opponents, which both Schafer and Perdue feared would dilute the experience for players and decrease turnout even further.
“If you have three other teams in six-man, do you play them twice and the season’s over?” Schafer said.
“The part of it I wouldn’t like is that it’s not sanctioned,” Perdue said. “The Shrine Bowl would not be available. If you want to play football after you leave Ray High School -- which is not a lot of guys, but it happens -- the chances of them getting recruited dimish greatly because the game is played so much differently.”
The Ray students who spoke at the meeting said, all else being equal, they would prefer a team of their own.
“I had a lot more fun being ourselves than I did being with Tioga,” senior Robert Logan said.
But the uncertainty that would come with entering into the six-man league, or lack thereof, worried many in the audience, including some of the players.
“I want to be a Ray Jay,” junior Alex Kruzel said, “but if we stay with Ray Jays, we might not be able to that long.”
A partner in Powers Lake
Stanley recently voted to end its co-op with Powers Lake after this next year for primarily the same reason that Tioga parted with Ray two years ago: a realignment plan that would have required the team to compete against much larger schools than ever before.
The NDHSAA realigns the schools in its football plan every two years to reflect changes in enrollment.
Concerns about the size differential of schools within each class led the NDHSAA to shrink its highest-enrollment level of football, Class AAA, from 16 teams to 14.
While Class AA would also decrease from 16 to 10, Stanley-Powers Lake, with a combined high school male enrollment of about 140, would remain at that level -- and now share it with schools as big as Jamestown, which has nearly three times as many students.
Stanley-Powers Lake has already found itself to be generally overmatched in three years of Class AA play, with two wins against 19 losses in region games.
“It’s not been pleasant for them,” Perdue said.
Severing the co-op allows Stanley to instead drop down to Class A. Powers Lake, meanwhile, does not have enough players to field even its own nine-man team.
Schafer said Powers Lake was courted by Kenmare to join its co-op, which will be moving up from nine-man to Class A regardless. But Powers Lake also contacted Ray about two weeks ago as another option.
“We all sat down and said we should consider it,” Schafer said. “That’s the only way we can keep a program long-term.”
Making it work
Since then, the two schools have met to iron out the details about a potential co-op.
Ray agreed to move one-third of its practices and one home varsity game per year to Powers Lake, conditional on some improvements to the field there, which has neither a scoreboard nor lights.
The co-op would also get its own nickname and team colors, both still to be decided.
“We talked about black and yellow,” Schafer said. “That might work, but that’s not set in stone.”
“I do want everybody to have some ownership and some buy-in,” Perdue said. “Like Williams County -- it was a combined thing, I think there were better feelings that way.”
Schafer said a survey of Powers Lake students found strong support for partnering with Ray.
“The towns are similar, the guys are similar, they get along and they feel it would work out,” Schafer said.
He encouraged the Ray students, parents and patrons to be optimistic.
“I think it’ll be fun,” he said. “People might think, ‘Why do I want to go play in Powers Lake on a Saturday?’ It’ll be their first home game in 40-some years. Think of how much excitement there will be.”
Schafer and Perdue agreed that they don’t want the co-op to deter any Ray students from signing up for the sport.
“Ray kids have got to keep playing football,” Perdue said. “We’ve got to keep getting kids coming out, and get more kids out.”