Brandon Warr and
Cowboy Memorial Stadium won’t be aglow with bright lights on many a cool, crisp Friday night this coming fall. That’s because officials at Gunnison High School (GHS) have opted to forgo a varsity football schedule this year — fielding only a junior varsity team instead.
The decision was reached last Wednesday between head coach Jarrod Hinton and GHS Athletic Director Dave Uhrig as a result of a low number of players on the roster.
Last year, GHS started with 31 players but finished with 23 as a result of injuries, and fewer than two dozen have turned out so far this year. By way of comparison, the smallest team the Cowboys faced last season — Montezuma Cortez — had 36 players.
“This decision was based upon our vision for the future of Cowboys football and the player personnel who will be playing for us this season,” Hinton said. “It is definitely not a submission to competition or an election for the easy way out, as that is not something this program would ever stand for or suggest.”
Once the decision was made, Uhrig contacted Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA), notifying them that the Cowboys would not be playing a varsity schedule.
“After that I drafted a letter and sent it to the teams we were supposed to play,” said Uhrig. “Just to let them know we didn’t have the numbers to play them.”
Additionally, Uhrig has worked in recent days to help seniors interested in playing varsity ball identify another school — a move allowed under CHSAA rules.
Participation declining statewide
Fewer players to field a high school football team is not unique to GHS. In 2017, CHSAA reported that high school sports participation in the state had increased for the 28th consecutive year. However, the same couldn’t be said for football specifically.
Figures show that after reaching an all-time high of nearly 18,000 student-athletes participating in high school football throughout the state for the 2007-08 school year, the sport has seen a decline in participation — including a nearly 5 percent drop in athlete numbers last season as compared to the year prior.
Last season, GHS did not field a JV team as a result of the number of players combined with a CHSAA rule that a player can only play six quarters in a given week.
The last season that GHS was able to field varsity, JV and freshman teams simultaneously was 1983 — Bob Howard’s first year at the local high school. Howard — who served as head football coach from 1995-2006 and 2009-2014 — said that during his latter stint the team also had difficulty for a couple years in fielding a JV squad by the season’s end as a result of injury.
Howard points to a myriad of factors that he believes have led to declining participation in high school football. They include the potential for injury, greater prevalence of non-CHSAA-sanctioned sports and other activities, and young athletes’ focus on other sports at which they excel.
“My generation, we just played all sports,” he said.
Still, Howard noted other high schools in the region — including Aspen and Glenwood Springs — which either discontinued their football program altogether or only fielded a JV team for a short while, only to rebuilt those programs and return to a high level of competition at the varsity level.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “This might turn out to be a really good thing. I know it will be tough in terms of tradition.”
Focused on the future
Regardless of the decision, GHS coaches say they’re excited about the season ahead. There are seven coaches on staff for the 2018 campaign committed to development of relationships and teaching the game.
“Each current member of our program, from freshmen to seniors, is needed,” Hinton said. “They will be asked to carry and fulfill essential roles throughout this season.”
Additionally, Hinton noted that the upperclassmen will be looked to for leadership in showing younger Cowboys the value of a strong work ethic and skills.
While the GHS schedule this season won’t reflect Friday night games of years past, the Cowboys will play a JV homecoming game against Hotchkiss on Friday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.
“We will communicate our schedule as it develops,” said Hinton. “But less than 24 hours after our decision, we already added two games, and we don't foresee a reason that we won't be able to fill our schedule.”
As of Tuesday, the Cowboys already had added six games to the junior varsity schedule.
“We can't wait to get started and are excited about the future of this football program,” said Hinton.