SOUTH WAYNE, Wis. - Cory Milz was worried about the idea at first. He’s the kind of football coach who ends practice when his team is ready, so the thought of cutting drills short to make sure athletes could board an activities bus didn’t sit well.
Luckily, that hasn’t been a problem, but the 11-mile trip for every practice is still a challenge.
The reigning state champion Black Hawk High School football team made the decision this season to merge with the squad in Warren, Illinois. That's more commonly known as a co-op.
“It's a mixed bag, as you can imagine,” Milz said. “Some are really supportive because they understand the big picture.”
Milz says having a thriving junior varsity program is a way to retain players and keep them safe. While he estimated 80% of male students at Black Hawk play football, Milz is not ignorant about the drastic drop in football registration across the state. According to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, football participation has dropped by nearly 25% in the last decade in Wisconsin.
The drop in students overall has been the driving factor at Black Hawk. Milz says barely 100 students are enrolled at the high school, which is fewer than half compared to when he started coaching 22 years ago. Milz says a lot of that has to do with farming families moving out of the area or retiring without the next generation taking over the business.
“Anytime you're trying to run a football program and you're getting 20-some kids out for football, you're not going to be able to sustain that program,” Milz said.
Milz says his success is not only about adapting to a fall in numbers, but also making sure young players and their parents are buying in at a young age.
“I think that's been the key for us is just the community's support and the ability to keep our young kids dreaming and wanting to be a part of it someday,” Milz said.
About 35 miles west, Belmont High School faces similar problems with fluctuating enrollment and uncertain participation. Brandon Wiese has been dealing with it his entire coaching career.
“The second year of coaching, we had to go door-to-door recruiting guys. That brought some numbers, but they kind of continued to go back down,” Wiese said.
Wiese considered a co-op arrangement, even having serious conversations with schools in Highland about the prospect. In the end, he didn’t see that as the best option. Some of that had to do with a lot of schools being on the verge of jumping divisions. It was also about maintaining an identity.
“We wanted to maintain our pride, and we wanted to maintain black and orange and then go forward as Belmont,” Wiese said.
Wiese and the athletic department opted to go to eight-man football. Belmont is part of a growing number of schools downsizing their game in order to field a team. The number of eight-man high school programs more than doubled over the past five years, going from 23 teams in 2014 to 51 teams this season.
“It was something new, and people don't always know what new looks like, and I was one of those two years ago. It was something new to me,” Wiese explained.
There will be at least one away game this year when the Belmont Braves will travel about three hours to their opponent. Still, Wiese says that’s better than not being able to field a program at all.
“Giving these guys an opportunity like I mentioned earlier to really give them a chance to be successful and represent their school and give it their all every week is something that's priceless in my opinion,” Wiese said.