You’ve got to hand it to the smaller schools in the panhandle of the state.
Somehow, someway, they just find a way to keep battling.
THIS FALL will seem like a throwback as the four Division II schools that form the North Star League — Lakeside, Kootenai, Mullan and Clark Fork — will compete for one berth to the state playoffs. For the past four years, starting in 2014, the North Star League merged with the White Pine League to compete for two berths to the playoffs from what was dubbed the White Star League.
“When we got together with the White Pine, it was at a time when Mullan was iffy,” Kootenai football coach and athletic director Doug Napierala said. “It made scheduling and playing games easy. We went into it really optimistic. Deary and Kendrick are great teams. With Mullan getting into that co-op (with St. Regis), they’re solid again, and now I’ll be the guy that’s trying to put a program together.”
Kootenai advanced to the state playoffs every year from 2007 to 2013. No team from the North Star League has advanced since the merger. Kootenai made it to the 1A Division II championship game in 2009.
“Our kids were kind of losing interest in it,” said Napierala, the Warriors’ football coach for 17 seasons. “Hopefully it will revitalize the interest in football and get some fight back in the kids.”
EARLIER THIS week, the Idaho High School Activities Association, as well as Montana High School Association approved a co-op agreement between Mullan and St. Regis High to play football starting in the fall.
The schools are 35 miles and one time zone apart, with Lookout Pass between them.
“What I’m most excited about selfishly is having a chance to compete,” Mullan coach Stetson Spooner said. “I like the idea of competition in practice and dependability, If someone misses practice, we’ve got someone else to throw in.”
Mullan has went from having anywhere to nine, to eighth, to not having a program altogether in recent years. St. Regis, which played 6-man in recent years, had to cancel its final five games last year due to a shortage of players.
“They’ve probably got three to six guys that will come here,” said Spooner, who has been at the school eight years, and has been head coach every year Mullan fielded a football team. “I’m not expecting to be over 15 guys. I’m most excited to see some numbers.”
Spooner is a graduate of Flathead High in Kalispell, Mont., and went on to play football at NAIA Montana Western in Dillon.
“I’ve got a Montana bone in my body, and when you have to cancel a season, the whole morale of the school goes down,” Spooner said. “The whole school felt it.”
Due to low numbers, Mullan canceled its 2015 season.
In an effort to avoid the same situation for his school, St. Regis athletic director Jesse Allen contacted Spooner.
“He’d called me and asked what the chances of doing a co-op between the two of us,” Spooner said. “I kind of shrugged it off. Not being rude, but I knew we’d have 8 to 10 kids and go through the motions again. But then it started to make a lot of sense.”
Mullan went 1-6 in 2017, playing with eight players throughout the year.
“We were competitive last year in games we played,” Spooner said. “It just seemed like with eight guys, we had a kid get hurt and it gets stretched out.”
“If it keeps the sport and league going, I’m all for it,” Napierala said of the Mullan-St. Regis co-op. “But if they’re kicking my butt, I’m against it. If it keeps the rivalry going between the two schools, I’m all for it. If it keeps kids involved, it’s a good thing.”
AS OF now, the plan for Mullan is to try and play at least one nonleague game at St. Regis, Spooner said. Both schools are nicknamed the Tigers.
And at least for now, those days of 6-man football at John Drager Field in Mullan are over. The Tigers played some 6-man games in 2016.
“I don’t ever want to touch that again,” Spooner said. “We experimented with 6-man, and I felt like I was robbing the kids of football. The first time I saw 8-man was at Mullan, and I’m still learning how to coach that. Our kids weren’t too found of playing 6-man.”
“I think Mullan doing this solidifies us to stay at 8-man,” Napierala said. “We may be hovering around 11, 12 or 13, but we’re fielding teams. The kids can play and do something. Once you lose a program, it’s hard to get it back. If they’d let it go completely and wouldn’t have kept fighting for it, they wouldn’t be in it now. I think it’s a good thing.”
“This is totally evident of small towns just scratching and scraping,” Spooner said. “The only people that some wanted us to co-op with was Wallace (a 1A Division I school). Now, it’s a reality because it’s a need.”
Jason Elliott is a sports writer for the Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached by telephone at (208) 664-8176, Ext. 2020 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JECdAPress.