Joel Reichenberger: Ups and downs of 8-man football

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Joel Reichenberger

Steamboat Pilot & Today sports reporter and photographer Joel Reichenberger can be reached at 871-4253 or jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Joel here.

— It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Hayden High School football team’s drop to the 8-man classification would be a bad thing.

When I started writing the story Wednesday, I felt like I was asking coaches and administrators about a horrible game or an ugly loss, tiptoeing around questions and trying to word things gently.

The decision-makers in Hayden knew something we all need to remember: This won’t be a bad thing.

Dropping to 8-man does little but ensure more great football in Hayden’s future.

Our reluctance to accept 8-man in Hayden has to do with how well the Tigers have fared in recent years in 11-man football. In 2006, Hayden was a game away from the state championship, and the team clawed to within two just last season.

Heck, even last weekend Shawn Baumgartner’s boys seemed up to the 11-man task, upsetting one of the league favorites in Paonia.

Nearby schools Soroco, North Park and West Grand all preceded the Tigers’ likely step down, but each of those programs struggled in their final years of 11-man football.

Hayden, though? It just doesn’t sound right.

But look beyond that first, raw emotion, and it’s obvious that 8-man is best. As well as Hayden can do in its league, it’s hard to expect the team to compete to win it, especially with significantly larger schools prowling the grounds.

That’s a problem that’s only going to get more pronounced. Sure, the Tigers still will be able to win games like they did last week, but with every other school close to Hayden in size dropping to 8-man, those wins always will feel like upsets.

A Hayden vs. Soroco game can never be a bad thing, especially when the other option is for both football teams to load buses and drive six hours to face a rival on the other end of the state.

But there’s sadness, too, because this is another sign our changing society is stricken with a cancer that kills small towns. Hayden and Soroco are hemorrhaging students, but the problem is far worse elsewhere. On the plains, towns with once-proud high schools are being consolidated with once-bitter rivals. Others are shriveling up and dying altogether.

Surely such horrific fates don’t await these towns, but I can’t help but get a knot in my stomach as the local high schools continue to shrink relative to others in the state.

Hayden dropping to 8-man football is a good thing for the school, the town, the county, for me and for you.

But it makes me sad.

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