Rural decline forces schools to merge sports teams

By ERIC OLSON/None
Oct. 17, 2009 at 5:17 a.m.

DUNNING, Neb. (AP) — In this remote expanse of ranch country where cattle far outnumber people, folks keep a neighborly attitude toward everyone they meet — except when it comes to high school sports.

All over this region, kinship ends and rivalry begins on the football field, which makes what's happening at Sandhills High in Dunning and Thedford High, 27 miles to the west, so strange.

Declining and aging populations have forced the two schools to merge sports programs.

The Sandhills Panthers and Thedford Trojans have become the Sandhills-Thedford Knights.

"It was our biggest rivalry," said rancher Seth Ray, Thedford Class of 1998 and the school record-holder in the high jump. "We used to go parties after games and have fights with all their guys. We didn't mix very well."

Football drove the decision to form the co-op, as it's called. As it is, the schools have only enough students to play eight-man football. Thedford has only 31 students in the entire high school.

Without the co-op, Thedford, immediately, and Sandhills, eventually, would have faced the prospect of dropping to unsanctioned six-man football.

More than 100 Nebraska schools have entered co-ops for individual sports, such as swimming and softball, but there are only six in which all sports are merged.

There will be more in Nebraska and other sparsely populated areas as budgets and enrollments continue to shrink, said Bob Colgate of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations.

"Sometimes it gets to be so political, and people say there is no way in you-know-what that we're ever going to combine and field athletic teams together because we've been rivals," Colgate said. "But it's a numbers game with the rural schools, and it's the new reality."

In Thedford's Thomas County, population dropped 20 percent (729 to 583) from April 2000 to July 2008. In Dunning's Blaine County, the population is down 27 percent (583 to 428) over the same period.

Sandhills' school district covers 904 square miles and Thedford's 700 — the combined size is larger than Rhode Island — and together they graduated just 22 seniors last spring.

Ranch life has become largely mechanized, and hired hands are few these days. When young people leave for college or to take jobs after high school, not many come back to start families.

The sign at the edge of Dunning says the population is 109, but no people are out and about during a recent sunsplashed afternoon. Except for the post office, the block-long business district is shuttered. Many of the houses are abandoned and falling down. A few dogs roam, and one sleeps in the middle of a gravel street. All that breaks the silence are the coal trains that rumble by, or the cattle trucks rolling past on state Highway 2.

"If this town would lose this school, as much of a ghost town as it is now, it would be really bad," said first-year Knights football coach Nick Mumm.

Thedford, by comparison, is vibrant. The town of 200 sits at the intersection of U.S. 83 and Nebraska 2 and draws traffic into its bank, motel, restaurant and two convenience stores.

All that stands between a town like Dunning's existence and extinction is school consolidation.

"By keeping your school, you're keeping your town," said 29th-year Thedford teacher and administrator Dave Young, who manages half the co-op as Thedford's athletic director.

Co-opping sports is seen as the best way to hold off on what may become an inevitable consolidation, Young said. The theory is that if Thedford and Sandhills maintain viable sports and activities, the enrollment decline won't be exacerbated by kids transferring to miles-away schools that have more appealing after-school activities.

After all, people in this part of Nebraska aren't too concerned about having to drive long distances. It's part of the culture.

"You get one or two families with three or four kids, and suddenly they move, wow," Colgate said. "You wouldn't think nine people can make a difference in enrollment, but it sure can."

So Thedford High and Sandhills High are willing join forces in athletics and accept everything that entails.

Football practices alternate between Thedford and Dunning, a 54-mile roundtrip for kids from one or the other school every other day. Once they return to their home school, another 30- or 40-mile drive home awaits some of the kids who live on ranches.

The site for home games depends on the location of the opposing team. The visitor travels to whichever town is closer, and gate receipts are shared equally between Thedford and Sandhills.

Separately, neither Thedford nor Sandhills has ever been an athletic power. There have been a handful of state tournament appearances in a number of sports, but neither school has produced a Division I college athlete.

But Ray, the '98 Thedford grad, said folks in Thomas and Blaine counties are passionate about their sports.

"What else do we have?" Ray said. "We want our kids to do good."

After the two school boards voted to co-op their sports, the student bodies from each high school were brought together at the grade-school gymnasium in Halsey, the halfway point between Thedford and Dunning. The purpose of the summit was to establish a new identity.

The kids voted on the teams' new colors — green and white — and chose Knights for a nickname over Sandstorm, Wranglers, Silverbacks and Sidewinders.

Why does Sandhills' name come before Thedford in the official name of the co-op? Because 'S' comes before 'T' in the alphabet.

Co-op, of course, is short for cooperative, and things have generally gone smoothly, coaches and administrators from both schools say.

"Back in the day, the '80s and '90s, it would have never flown," said Trey Spencer, a junior who attends Sandhills. "We just hated each other. No one would even date a girl from Thedford back then."

Together, the schools believe they can become more competitive. There are only nine Thedford boys on the football team, but there are 30 altogether, meaning the Knights can develop players on a junior varsity.

"You may have some grandpas or uncles who moved away who don't like the fact we co-opped," said defensive coordinator Adam Marten said, a 1987 Sandhills graduate who has been a teacher and coach at both schools, "but they aren't here living it like our kids are. We did this not for aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas. We've done this for our kids because they need to have an opportunity to be competitive."

Competitive is nice. Survival is even better.

"The bottom line," coach Mumm said, "is that we need each other."


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