The Menahga School Board opted to move forward with a junior varsity football program for the 2020-21 season.

After lengthy discussion at the Jan. 21 meeting, board member Durwin Tomperi made the motion to approve the JV football schedule, hire the necessary coaches and coordinate opportunities for elementary-level football, in order to grow the program from a young age.

The motion passed 4-1, with board member Brad Goehrig opposed.

Goehrig noted it was a tough vote for him because he still thought the best option was to pair with Park Rapids. “I can’t support this,” he said of the motion.

During the 2019-20 season, there were 10 freshmen, five sophomore and four seniors from Menahga playing football.

Menahga Superintendent Kevin Wellen said, in his opinion, the varsity-level team should be a 10th through 12th grade sport. Any ninth grader playing varsity should be due to a special calibre of athlete “versus playing them out of necessity,” he said.

Menahga Athletic Director Don Donarski and High School Principal Mark Frank presented a chart of participation in football, dating back to 2013-14, where it peaked at 26 Menahga players. Since then, the total has ranged between 11 and 20.

Frank said safety is an issue, since freshmen make up half of the total participants. “It’s not for lack of trying on the district’s part and the community’s part. We just don’t have the numbers,” he said.

Donarski urged the board to make a decision quickly since it takes time to purchase equipment, if necessary, or negotiate with Park Rapids.

“We’ve had ample time to hear from the community. We’ve heard from kids, coaches, all parties of concern, and I think we’re at a point now we have to make a decision,” he said.

Tomperi said “the numbers don’t look real promising.” He noted there were several options for the football program: run a JV-only schedule, pair with Park Rapids High School or not have any football.

“I think we owe it to the community and a tradition that’s been part of the community for 75 years to try to, at least, give it one last shot,” Tomperi said. He proposed conducting another student survey to see if JV football was viable.

Board member Bob White liked the idea of a survey, but voiced concern. He teleconferenced into the meeting, as he was in Arizona. As a result, he was not able to vote on any school business.

“I just don’t see the numbers,” he said. “Our numbers have never been good.” He noted, while he was athletic director for five years, participation was still an issue.

White went on to say, “I’m a firm believer that those ninth graders shouldn’t be playing varsity, especially having to play varsity the whole game, because of their physical maturity level.”

White said parent involvement is needed. He mentioned there are 10 to 15 parents at a wrestling practice, for example.

In a letter to the board, White wrote, “With the past and future numbers forecast for Menahga, we would not be able to safely field a football team. If we play a JV schedule next fall, we’ll only be putting off the inevitable of pairing with Park Rapids or dropping football all together. I feel the best solution is to ask Park Rapids, again, about pairing football for the future. I know many people feel we should have a home varsity game, but we do not have the facilities. … I feel we have players that love the game of football and would fit in well with Park Rapids.”

Goehrig agreed with White. “If a kid wants to play, let him play where he can play at his level,” he said.

Donarski said Menahga is on a JV schedule for next fall, and there are currently no seniors set to play.

Board member Katie Howard proposed trying JV for one year.

Donarksi pointed out that JV schedules are completed in two-year increments.

If football stayed in-house, board member Julia Kicker asked how the coaches could build the program.

“When you talk about rebuilding the Menahga program, the numbers don’t lie, and I’m a numbers guy,” said Kevin Sommers, who was assistant coach for the UNC varsity team last fall. He noted he has previously coached with Park Rapids football head coach Jeremy Nordick and assistant coach Randy Thompson. “There’s no way, with these type of numbers, you can have a successful program, especially if you’re looking at building a program up and giving one year to do it.”

Sommers said it could take up to seven years to formulate a successful Menahga team.

He said it would be safer in the long-run to partner with Park Rapids.

“As a student body, (Menahga) don’t seem to want to go to Park Rapids, but sometimes students may not know what’s in their best interest,” he said.

Josh Roiko, who teaches at Menahga and has coached in the past, noted that UNC football advanced to a state tournament and still struggles to maintain its numbers.

Beyond football, Roiko noted that building a relationship with Park Rapids could benefit Menahga students who want to swim, dance or play tennis. Roiko urged the board to “be realistic and look at what else we could provide our students.”

Former wrestling head coach Kris Koll said there were only nine wrestlers when he took over that program in 2005, but it gradually expanded to 40 by 2013. Like other successful sports in Menahga, Koll said the district must structure the football program to attract youth.

“We’ve never really had a solid elementary program for football,” he said.

Parental involvement is very important, he added.

Koll urged the board to set goals and support a stand-alone program.

“It can be done,” he said. “We never really tried to attract our youth, like our basketball program has.”