DAYTON — Thick ninety-degree day, golf-course green grass, massive mountains backdropping your wind sprints — any football-crazy coach would be all smiles on the first day of practice, no matter the state of the program.
That was Tongue River Eagles second-year man John Scott Monday evening as the team began 2013 in Dayton.
It’s no secret that the Eagles have struggled with low numbers and subsequently wins for the past few years, a battle highlighted by a forfeited season due to low participation in 2011. They’ll join Moorcroft as one of two current 2A schools moving to 1A next season.
Perhaps it was fate that looked kindly on Tongue River when the shifting parts of the WHSAA set them on a path for a move in 2014. New official Average Daily Membership numbers released Friday by the Wyoming High School Activities Association put the Eagles below a new state cutline and, this week, into preparing for their final 2A campaign.
Change started statewide when the influx of 6-man football hit Wyoming. Coaches looked to remedy an imbalance in the 1A conference.
“You can have a difference of 1,000 students between Campbell County and Sheridan, but you’re still talking 80-some kids out (for football) at both,” Scott said Monday before his team took the field. “But you get down to our level and that 250-kid difference makes a big difference out on the field.”
“If we were the Cokeville’s of the world where we had our program built up and we’d had some recent success at the 2A level, we’d probably look at something and say we can still compete. But the reality is we’ve got some smaller classes still coming up — even with all of our numbers in the upper elementary — so that hits for the next year or two for participation in football, Scott added.”
While Eagles fans celebrated the return of football in 2012, the real work had just started. And it’s one that has a constant saboteur: not enough men on the field.
Scott said that their eighth-grade class has eight total boys, and while they have a good-sized freshman class this fall, the sophomore class at TRHS has 20 total students. He says this could put them at 15 kids on the football team when those sophomores are seniors.
“So it makes more sense for us to get down to at least where we can compete just on the numbers part of it and let us continue to build this program being a little more formidable opponent to schools our size,” Scott said.
Big Horn came in as the second smallest 2A school, according to ADM figures, but numbers don’t always dictate football participation. Even some current 1A schools like Cokeville (who has won five state titles since 2000) carry strong team numbers each year, Scott pointed out. As a result, Cokeville plans to opt-up for 11-man even though it fell under the new 6-man cutline.
This means things like a dampened cross-county rivalry with Big Horn for the Eagles, but times change, and the disadvantage could be seen on the field last year in Dayton. Tongue River was winless in 2012 — many of those losses suffered by 30 or more points — fielding barely 20 players throughout the year. First stringers were all Tongue River had, and when players went down, the sideline was thinned to as few as four men standing in pads.
Back on the field Monday, the mindset is here and now. Scott feels better about where his team is going, his schemes in place, not so rushed by an experimental first season coupled with an complete program reconstruct. Tongue River lost six seniors from 2012, but 26 participated in Monday’s session.
“We talked about that, we sure got the pats on the back for finishing up last year because we had 19 healthy bodies when we played at Wheatland,” Scott said. “Even though we could say we finished what we started, we’ve got to up the ante now. You don’t want the compassionate vote. Now we should play the game a little bit closer to the way it needs to be played because we’ve got some veteran kids now who have put some time in and will be more comfortable with their role.”
This season, the Eagles will look to athletic senior quarterback Matt Yellowtail when he returns from an injury early in the season. Scott hopes a more experienced front line carrying an offseason of weight room work will help the Eagles extend what were short possessions in 2012 and balance some of those lopsided score lines.
“They are going to provide a good base for us so when we are playing some younger kids the younger kids will be able to look over and there will be a veteran kid there who can extend himself,” Scott said. “Last year we had 11 guys who were just simply trying to survive.
“Now our younger guys can look up and say hey I’ve got some older guys who can help take care of me, and that wouldn’t have been the case a year ago.”