Approximately 25 people commented, listened or asked questions about a proposed football pairing with Menahga during a Park Rapids School Board special meeting Wednesday at Century School.
Activities Director Jeremy Nordick said the pairing is being negotiated for a six-year contract, but could be contracted for anywhere between one and six years
He noted that with the pairing:
• The team would remain the Park Rapids Area Panthers, wearing the orange and black team colors.
• All practices, home games and fifth- and sixth-grade scrimmages would take place in Park Rapids, with grades 7-12 players busing to Park Rapids for daily practice and parents providing transportation for grades 5-6 and the K-4 Panther Pack.
• The team would stay in class AAA, the combined enrollment of both schools moving it from the bottom to the lower middle compared to other schools in section 8AAA.
• The varsity and junior high coaching staff would add one coach each.
• Menahga would add approximately 58 players to Park Rapids' roster of 135 players in grades 5-11.
Nordick said the additional numbers would bring more depth to the team, improve competition and performance on the field and allow kids to play at their own age level. Compared to larger schools in the section, the pairing would help "level the playing field."
Nordick projected that Park Rapids will field 23 freshmen, 22 sophomores, six juniors and 16 seniors this fall. Menahga High School Principal Mark Frank estimated his school would add five seniors, one junior, six sophomores and perhaps 12 freshmen.
Gauging the players' attitude, Nordick said, "They'd be very welcoming because they have friends over there, and it would add friends to their team and make us more competitive."
He acknowledged that the Menahga School is discussing moving the end of its school day to the same time as Park Rapids.
Asked how the schools will share costs of the football program, Nordick said a 70/30 split was being discussed, with Menahga paying for a portion of the new coaching positions.
Aaron Morris was the first of several community members to suggest that if students want to play football in Park Rapids, they should enroll in the district. "Let's keep it Park Rapids," he said.
Justin Harrison said Park Rapids doesn't need Menahga's help making the numbers for freshman and junior varsity teams.
Matt Brandt, whose twin sons will be seniors on the football team next year, noted that when team members were surveyed about the pairing, "50-some said yes, 26-some said no, and some nine said, 'I need some more information.'"
He hinted that some of the 26 opposed might quit the team if the pairing goes forward.
Meg Morris, a grandmother of multiple football players, said she has witnessed animosity between the towns and is concerned it will lead to decreased participation.
Walt Harrison, a former coach whose grandsons play football, said Nordick has done a lot this past year to "restore the roar" and urged giving him a few more years to build the program.
"I don't think we need to complicate the whole thing by bringing another school in," he said.
Dotti Seifert said that regardless of what everyone says now, practices and games in Menahga will happen. "They say it's not going to happen, but ... it's just a matter of time."
Carl May questioned what would happen if Menahga decides to split off again.
Pointing out that bigger classes are coming up through the lower schools, Nicole Brandt hinted that with the pairing, the increased enrollment could push the school into class AAAA.
Comments in favor
Team parent Carol Stachowski said she is in favor of the pairing because "I'd hate to see somebody's program go wayside rest because they don't have enough people to play everything."
She added that when her son was a freshman, he was one of four freshmen who went out for football. "To me, if we could have a full team and going somewhere, I'd like to see it," she said.
Defensive coordinator Randy Thompson, a Park Rapids native who played Panther football, said Park Rapids has 42 percent of the enrollment of its 8AAA rival Detroit Lakes, as an example of the numbers the program is up against.
"As I'm trying to put the best defense out there," he said, "going against all these Division 2 athletes like D.L. and Fergus have, it's hard."
Assistant football coach Brian Johnson previously served as Menahga's athletic director and coached UNC football. He said that based on his experience with school pairings, "the animosity for kids, it goes away."
While a few kids may not come out for football because of it, he said, "it's always the adults that have that town pride."
He added, "Football is a game of numbers. You can never have enough players."
Students speak up
All three upcoming football captains spoke in favor of the pairing.
"Our team is dwindling in numbers," Jens Anderson said, noting that some youths in Menahga who did not play football this year "talked about how, if this pairing does go through, they will come out and play again."
Regarding animosity between the schools, he said he and co-captains Joey Stachowski and Jeff Haas will ensure that everything stays civil.
"I feel it will definitely help out the program," Anderson said. "It will give us depth, and competition always helps. It will help people work harder, and it will make the team better."
No vote was taken at Wednesday's meeting. Calling it a difficult decision, school board chair Sherry Safratowich said it will be decided at the school board's June 3 meeting and that until then, the board will welcome additional questions and comments.