Park drops varsity football program in interest of student safety

By: 
Ryan Peerboom
Friday, September 6, 2019
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The Park football team gets ready to break the huddle after warm-ups on their first day of practices on Aug. 16 at Park High School. - Photo by Ryan Peerboom

The Park High School football team will no longer compete at the varsity level this season. 

School administrators and coaches made the decision Thursday night to forfeit the rest of the season and compete only at the junior varsity level, citing player safety as the sole reason for the decision. 

“With the safety of players at the forefront, coaches and high school administrators considered student numbers, student injuries and avoiding future injuries,” a press release from the school said. 

Park opened its season last Friday at Fergus High School. The Rangers lost 55-0 and had negative total rushing yards on the game. The Rangers have only four seniors and were forced to turn to freshmen and sophomores to fill out their roster. 

“It was pretty obvious that we had a player safety issue,” Park head coach Nick Coate said in an interview Friday morning.

Players and parents were informed of the decision Thursday night.

“I think, overall, they understood the decision,” Coate said. “It seemed like a lot of them were very relieved.”

Park Activities Director Regina Wood said the decision was made after discussing their situation with the MHSA and other activities directors from the conference. Wood also spoke with administrators from Missoula Hellgate High School to help make the decision, according to the press release. Missoula Hellgate recently forfeited a varsity season due to low numbers and came back as a healthier program. 

“Ultimately it just came down to the safety of the kids,” Wood said.

The decision to forfeit this season may carry over into next year as well. As per MHSA policy, teams who forfeit more than a quarter of their games in one season must compete at the JV level the next year. Park can appeal this ruling in November if it determines it is possible to field a varsity team next season. 

Wood said the situation will be reassessed in November before any decision is made for next year. She added that she believes the decision is necessary to properly rebuild the program.

“We have to look at this as a positive,” Wood said. “We’re very optimistic that this will be a reset for a program to ultimately be competitive at a varsity level.”

Coate and Wood both confirmed that they never considered canceling the program outright. Reclassification to a lower level division is not possible due to enrollment numbers at Park High, Wood said.

Moving forward, Coate said that improving connections with middle school programs and developing a youth football program would go a long way toward increasing overall turnout at Park. Wood agreed that would be best for the program.

“This has to be a long-term vision and our coaches have been really proactive in putting some of those things in place and looking ahead to how we can strengthen it,” she said. 

Park will still play its scheduled game against Sidney at 4 p.m. Saturday at McLeod Field, although it will be competing against Sidney’s JV team. 

The remainder of the schedule, now at the junior varsity level, is still being determined, although Coate said the school wants to give players a normal experience. 

“We’re trying to fill out the schedule right now,” he said. “We still want to be able to have a senior night and we still want to do a homecoming.”

Senior linebacker Jack Gauthier announced the decision to his fellow classmates over the school’s intercom on Friday morning. Gauthier said he understands the decision, despite having to sacrifice his senior year of varsity football and any potential accolades he might receive. 

“It was definitely a surprise but it wasn’t completely mind-boggling,” he said. “It wasn’t rocket science to figure out why it happened, but I have complete trust in my coaches and the administration for making the decision.”

Gauthier said the community’s support is important to their team and he hopes they continue to support the team through this process.

“I feel like we won’t give up on them, so they shouldn’t give up on us,” he said.