Originally published in the Yellowstone County News print edition.
Shepherd Montana — Class B football across Montana will look a lot different next fall.
Last week, the Montana High School Association approved a realignment that removes 11 schools from Class B. Libby and Ronan will move up to Class A. Choteau, Forsyth, Joliet, Lame Deer, Lodge Grass, Rocky Boy, St. Ignatius, St. Labre and Troy move down to Class C to play 8-man football — although those schools will be in Class B for all other sports.
Activities directors at both Shepherd and Huntley Project schools expressed concern about some of the changes, which could increase travel time and expense. Huntley and Shepherd will go into the East division with Baker, Colstrip, Poplar, Roundup and Wolf Point. Conferences have not been set in those divisions.
“I think by and large they have the best interests” of Class B and Class C schools in mind, said Jeff Armstong, Shepherd’s athletic and activity director. Baker is already a long trip, and adding Poplar and Wolf Point will stretch the district’s
travel budget, he said, and complicate the district’s route busing system, since the Department of Transportation limits the number of hours a bus driver can put in during a 24-hour period.
“It adds up,” he said, “It adds to our overall costs,” to go to Wolf Point or Poplar, and there isn’t room in the district budget for an overnight stay in either town.
At first glance, Shepherd and Huntley lose rival opponent Forsyth, since no Class C schools field 11-man teams.
But for schools with dwindling enrollment, moving to Class C is a good fit, Armstrong said.
“When you field 13-14 kids,” he said. “You can not play 11-man football.”
Custer/Hysham will remain in Class C 6-man. State 6-man champion Hot Springs and Box Elder will move up to 8-man,
Changing Class B divisions might mean some different teams make it to the state championship game. Armstrong said. With more than 30 Class B football teams, “you could be a really good football team and stay home.”
Class B schools will field 29 football teams next fall.
Guy Croy, activities director at Huntley Project Schools, told the school board last week that the football changes will likely increase travel and budget hardships for some school districts.
“That’s going to change the landscape,” Croy said. “Obviously, with time, budgets, it’s going to be a challenge.”
Croy estimated that teams in the eastern conference could travel 7,600 miles.
Armstong said it’s too early to tell, but Shepherd could be also be on the road for longer trips.
“We may have to go farther than Malta,” Armstrong said, “already a good jaunt.”
Croy said last week he was still sorting out the new division lineups for sports other than football.
“We’re in so many different configurations” including golf, softball, volleyball and basketball, Croy said.
Croy and Armstrong both see another possible effect of last week’s MHSA executive actions, which will bring a divisional tournament format to Class AA basketball. Croy said he envisions a shorter AA schedule, which means those schools could drop Class A opponents to concentrate on AA schools. If Class A schools in turn drop Class B schools from their schedules, quite a few schools could be looking for games next year, he said.
Armstrong also can see that ripple effect. Shepherd usually plays Class A Hardin in basketball, while Huntley plays Lewistown and Columbus takes on Laurel. Armstrong said playing Class A schools usually provides a higher level of competition and he hopes that continues.
Also, smaller schools like Joliet, Forsyth or Colstrip that remain in Class B for volleyball and basketball can cause wrinkles in the schedule because they might have varsity and junior varsity teams, but not a C or freshman team so the younger players may also lose some games, Armstrong said. But Shepherd or Huntley may be able to pick up games against younger teams from the Billings high schools, Armstrong said.
“Those schools cut more kids than we keep,” he said. “It’s good competition. It made you elevate your level of play.”
The MHSA approved two enrollment classification guidelines, one for football and one for other sports. Each includes a 10-percent leeway that allows a school that is close to the break between classifications to petition to stay in its class, or move up or down.
For football, the classifications are as follows: Class AA — 901 students, Class A — 351-900; Class B — 131-350, Class C 8-man — 66-130, Class C 6-man — 65 or fewer students.
For other sports, Class AA is 779 or more students, (down from 826 students in the previous version), Class A is 307-778 students, Class B is 108-306 students and Class C is 107 or fewer students.
At the last count, Huntley Project High School had 259 students. Shepherd High School had 250 students.