THREE OAKS — The New Buffalo and River Valley high school football teams will merge into one co-op program beginning in the fall of 2021.
Both school boards approved the move on Monday, March 22.
The River Valley board voted unanimously to OK the co-op football program after Superintendent Scott Bojanich said planning has been going on since last fall and “we feel like we have a very solid relationship between the two school districts.”
He said New Buffalo football coach Matt Johnson has visited with River Valley players, adding that “those are ongoing.”
River Valley Athletic Director Ryan Portenga said, “The best part throughout this entire process has been watching our upperclassmen from each school get together and have a couple meetings … no coaches, just trying to get their ideas and philosophies together. Both schools just want to play ball, and it’s awesome to see that relationship develop.”
Portenga said two RV coaches (paid by River Valley) will be part of the staff as assistants under Johnson.
“It’s quite common these days … if you have a JV where those assistants take over that JV portion of the program and run with it, or they fold back into the varsity,” he said. “The whole point of this is to have a junior varsity program.”
Portenga said the co-op is meant to “give our kids the guarantee to play football” following a season where River Valley High School did not field a team.
Portenga said he also thinks about “our cheerleaders and our band members who haven’t had those half-times and those shows.”
He said home games will be split between the two districts, and the middle school football programs will remain separate.
The New Buffalo Area Schools Board of Education approved the cooperative football program for grades 9-12 with River Valley School District, but not without discussion. The vote was 5 in favor with 1 no vote from Trustee Heather Black and one abstention from Trustee Joyce Lantz, who was attending her first meeting.
“It’s the best thing for our kids,” said Superintendent Jeff Leslie as he introduced the issue, adding that the wresting and tennis cooperatives (with Bridgman High School) have been very successful.
New Buffalo Athletic Director (and varsity football coach) Matt Johnson agreed, saying the option gives students “the opportunity to play a sport they want to play at the appropriate level.
“My mind-set is I would rather try something and fail at it rather than not try it at all,” Johnson said.
Trustee John Haskins raised the question of whether there would be enough players to field both a varsity and junior varsity team, even with the combined districts.
“I call a spade a spade. I don’t see the numbers to have two teams,” Haskins said.
“We have a lot better chance together than we do on our own,” Board President Chuck Heit responded. Leslie was hopeful that the number of players are there saying that a lot of students have expressed interest in playing or returning from last year.
Trustee Black questioned the division of costs between the districts and what would happen if the number of players weren’t there.
Johnson said even if there weren’t enough players to have a junior varsity team the varsity team would be as large as those in previous seasons and it would be better than cutting the program.
The issue of no playoffs for eight-man programs as large and the combined squad would be also was raised, with both Leslie and Haskins responding that the number of eight-man and co-op programs was increasing, probably leading to changes in MHSSA policies regarding season-end playoffs and also the chance for other season-ending competitions.
“We’ve only gone to the playoff six times in the history of New Buffalo football. If we had been a perennial playoff football team it would be easier to go our own way,” Johnson said.