Posted 8/18/15 (Tue)
By Jody Michael
For the first time since 2001, football fans in Tioga and Ray are rooting for their respective Pirates and Jays.
As of this season, which begins Friday, the two schools are splitting from their Williams County Firestorm co-op in favor of fielding their own programs once again.
That decision came from Tioga’s school board last year after population changes in the state threatened to elevate the Firestorm into a class of much larger schools. Instead, both schools will move down into the nine-man football class.
Tim Schaffer, now coaching the Pirates after previously leading the Firestorm, said he has been busy getting the new players up to speed and helping the returning players adjust to the nine-man game.
“We need to get them to gel a little bit better,” he said. “The defense is coming along a little quicker than the offense at this point, so I’m hoping the defense will be a strength.”
Ray’s smaller student population made its school officials initially reluctant to lose the co-op, but with the decision now final, the Jays are preparing for the season with a positive outlook under the helm of new head coach Steve Perdue.
“The kids are enthusiastic, and the attitudes are good,” Perdue said. “They’ve been real coachable.”
Friday’s match-ups see the Pirates travel to Underwood while the Jays visit Beach. Those happen to be the only long-distance road games on the schedule this year for either team.
One benefit of rejoining the nine-man class is the return to a football region that resembles the volleyball and basketball regions, stretching only as far east as Parshall rather than all the way to Harvey.
The more nearby, natural opponents will not only reduce travel, Schaffer said, but may also generate more excitement among the players.
“They play all those teams in basketball, and they wrestle with them,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll start to build some of those rivalries back up.”
Wanting to be competitive
On paper, Tioga and Ray are entering a Region 6 that at least appears relatively weak across the board, with no clear favorites for any of the four playoff spots.
Of the eight schools in the region, Divide County had the best record last year, at 6-4, but graduated 11 seniors.
Nipping at Divide County’s heels are the Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood Mavericks, who finished just behind the Maroons last year at 5-4 and graduated only four seniors.
As a co-op last year, Williams County struggled to a 2-7 finish, and Schaffer said switching from 11-man to nine-man won’t guarantee any additional success.
“Dropping down to nine-man, it doesn’t get easy,” he said. “I know there are some good football teams in nine-man.”
Both schools were at least able to attract new players who previously might have balked at the repeated 20-minute ride between Tioga and Ray for practices and home games.
The Pirates have 24 players on the roster, and Schaffer said he hopes to encourage even more to sign up next season. The Jays have 18 -- “not too bad, and maybe a few more than we expected,” Perdue said -- though only three seniors.
For both, the turnout is comparable to their opponents, but neither coach is sure just how much the lack of experience will impact his team.
“Starting up our own teams, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Schaffer said. “There’s a bit of a learning curve, but the kids are working hard.”
Perdue said he is telling his team not to worry about anything except trying to win the next game.
“It’s a work in progress because of the inexperience,” he said, “but I can guarantee we’re going to give our best effort every week.”
Ray’s home opener is Aug. 28 against Parshall. Tioga’s is Aug. 29, a day later than originally scheduled, vs. Kenmare. Both kick off at 7 p.m.