Among the tall pines and towering mountains along the border between Northwest Montana and Northeast Idaho two equals one.
Some kind of new math run amok? No, just a formula with many factors that prove this seemingly impossible mathematical equation. And the results have enhanced the lives of all involved.
Separated by two state boundaries, two time zones, a lofty mountain pass and 39 miles of Interstate 90, the communities of St. Regis, Montana and Mullan, Idaho have joined forces to save a Friday night tradition and enhance the spirit and cooperation on the high school football fields of their respective towns.
The two small towns figured out a way to overcome low player numbers by joining the St. Regis Tigers with the Mullan Tigers into one 8-man football team.
Along the way any aspect of a rivalry, other than occasional good natured ribbing, has been swept aside in a focused, dedicated and determined effort to keep Friday Night Lights glowing.
As senior running back and all-state defensive back Ian Farris put it, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way! We all love football!”
Farris, a speed burner of a running back and a student at St. Regis High School, was named last year to an Idaho all-state 8-man team. Without the cooperation between all involved, he may likely not have had the opportunity.
Bringing it all together has involved an inspiring amount of cooperation and teamwork involving administrators, faculty, staff and students at both schools as well as solid support from residents of both towns.
Along the way a sharing of resources has emerged to the benefit of all involved.
Just a few years ago, turnout for football at the schools, both of which have grades 9-12 enrollments hovering at about 50, left St. Regis with three student athletes and Mullan with similar low numbers of football players.
The field lights went dark.
Efforts by both schools to find co-op schools to partner with ran into a tangle of state rules and classifications for level of play.
“It was hard to make it happen in Montana,” said St. Regis principal Shaun Ball. “We tried making it work with two or three other area schools (of similar size) but it would have kicked us into a higher 11-man classification where we would be competing against schools with bigger enrollments and larger player turnouts. We decided to check with Mullan and they said yes! It’s worked out really well for both communities.”
This year, 10 players turned out in Mullan and five students wanted to play in St. Regis, enough, to barely field an 8-man team. Joining forces with Mullan allows the co-op to compete in Idaho and be eligible for that state’s league and state championship competitions. “It really has been a blessing for both towns,” Ball added.
Obstacles to overcome included different rules concerning size of the 8-man playing field and the challenges associated with Pacific and Mountain Time Zone coordination. The teams use both school’s football fields for home games and practices.
In Idaho, 8-man teams play on the traditional 100-yard long field while Montana 8-man team play on an 80-yard long surface. This year’s eight-game schedule includes two with Montana opponents with the remaining home
games being hosted by Mullan High.
The team is off to a 3-0 start following a 52-6 win over Victor, Montana, on Friday the 13th at St. Regis after pummeling long time Mullan rival Wallace 74-0 on the 100-yard field in Idaho.
“This has all worked out beyond our wildest dreams,” said Mullan High principal Don Kotschevar. “The interaction among the student athletes has been fantastic. No head butting among the players, they started getting along from the first day.”
Kotschevar said cooperation and good will has also thrived among administration and staff from both schools. “We all work to accommodate each other.”
The combination allows both schools to share expenses such as equipment, pay for coaches and transportation costs. With more home games being played on the Mullan field, the two teams most often also gather for practice in Mullan and shares expenses for daily bus trips across Lookout Pass, the zenith of which is the state borderline.
The spillover has increased junior high football turnout between the two schools to a healthy 30 players in grades six through eight.
The arrangement has also increased band turnout and helped in the sharing of a music instructor to travel daily between the towns for classes and practice. Both schools host Homecoming festivities with students invited to both events.
Matt Peite, a senior offensive and defensive player (many play both), says the spirit of cooperation and competition has allowed him and his teammates to pursue their love of the game and created numerous solid friendships.
“We didn’t want anyone to miss out on playing football in high school. They guys on the team get along real well. It’s the best thing for both communities. We all love playing football.”
Stetson Spooner, a former Western Montana College offensive lineman and the coach at Mullan, serves as offensive coordinator for the joined teams, while Jessie Allan, the coach at St. Regis runs the defense. The co-coaches agree with the many positives joining forces has created.
“We are trying to preserve this tradition and experience,” Spooner said. “This has worked out great for everyone, we’re all on the same page.”
Those comments were echoed by coach Allan.
“This came together right from the start,” Allan said. “The demographics involved in the two communities and schools are basically the same. Two years ago we had no football at St. Regis.”
As the T-shirts and sweatshirts for sale at the stadium concession stand say…”39 miles, 2 time zones, 1 dream.”
Conclusion: In this case ... two does indeed equal one.