NEW BUFFALO — It looks like the Bees and the Bison will be playing on the same football team next fall.
The New Buffalo Area Schools Board of Education agreed during a Monday, June 4, special meeting to form a cooperative high school football program with the Bridgman Public Schools.
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Leslie said the two districts teamed up for a cooperative boys high school tennis team in the fall of 2017, and “it was a great success.”
New Buffalo’s 2017 football team compiled a 4-5 record, but the squad was led by nine seniors and going it alone on 2018 would mean putting a good number of freshmen into games against upperclassmen from other districts.
The Bees’ young team was winless in 2017, having graduated numerous seniors following a 6-4 2016 campaign.
Bison football coach and Athletic Director Matt Johnson said it is hoped the cooperative program will field both varsity and JV teams (later noting that going to an 8-man system would not solve the junior varsity dilemma and involve extensive travel). He said there were three juniors, no sophomores and six freshmen on the New Buffalo roster last year.
“There was a lot of concern by the rising eighth-graders that they would be playing on the varsity team as freshmen,” he said. “A couple of kids expressed to me that they were going to come out for sophomore year when they were a little bit bigger.”
One of the freshmen who played for New Buffalo in 2017, Ben Lijewski, said some of the eighth-graders he has talked to are very excited about the possibility of getting playing time and growing as players before reaching the varsity level if there is a junior varsity team. He added that others who expect to be starters at the varsity level in 9th grade were worried they could end up on the JV squad.
“I’m excited about it. I think there will be a lot more competition now,” Lijewski said.
School Board President Chuck Heit agreed that “competition is good.”
“You’ve got to come to practice, you’ve got to work hard and you’ve got to put in an effort,” he added.
Leslie said he had discussed joining forces for football with Bridgman officials in the past, but once both schools got an idea how many students were likely to play the game in 2018 the idea took on more urgency.
The Bridgman School Board unanimously approved the cooperative football program with New Buffalo on Tuesday morning, June 5.
Bridgman Athletic Director Ken Schmaltz said both schools’ football programs held spring meetings in late May, and “the numbers that we were foreseeing just weren’t panning out.”
He said going it alone with 11-man football at Bridgman seemed likely to result in an early end to the season or playing on a week-by-week basis based on having enough players to field a team.
“We want to give Bridgman kids who do want to play football the opportunity to do so,” Schmaltz said, adding that safety was a major factor in the decision to pursue a co-op program.
“I don’t want to stick a 14-year-old buy across the line from an 18-year-old man and say ‘OK, go do your job you’ve got to block this kid.’ We want to put kids in a position where their skill level is.”
An application seeking approval of the cooperative program from the MHSAA Executive Committee has been turned in, and Schmaltz said a decision is expected by June 14.
Johnson said his top priority is for the kids playing football to have a safe experience while also being competitive.
Many logistical issues must be worked out before the season begins involving everything from how to divide up the four or five home games, what to do with cheerleaders, marching bands and homecoming celebrations, the impact on the schedules of both the two affected squads and other area teams, practice schedules and sites, coaching staffs, admission policies, what the team’s mascot and uniforms will be, and more.
“We both realize that we need each other and there’s got to be equity in this relationship ... We have a really good relationship with the head coach at Bridgman (Aaron Locke),” Johnson said. “We sat down at the state track meet last weekend and had a three-hour conversation.”